It’s telling that the name Childish Gambino, probably the weakest aspect of Donald Glover’s rap alter ego, came courtesy of an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator. On Camp, Glover avoids most of the pitfalls that might threaten a transition into rapping (flow, credibility, and production) while stumbling over questions of identity, a limitation that’s especially interesting considering his fixation on personal issues. This core uncertainty about what kind of persona to present, coupled with material about similar personality struggles in Glover’s life and childhood, makes Camp an interesting but ultimately uneven effort.
The uncertainty at the heart of Camp means that, while Glover often has surprisingly strong beats (he co-produced the album himself) and a good sense of timing, his work often sounds desperate or false. Torn between differing techniques, he’s too smart to fully embrace gangster tropes, too jaded to fall into old-school positivity, too defensive to take himself entirely seriously. He tries out all these poses alternatively, leapfrogging from one to another. “Bonfire,” the album’s lead single and its best track on a visceral level, goes for spitfire bravado with a Lil Wayne-aping flow, linking sharp couplets over a fierce, minimal beat. Opener “Outside” is a more down-to-earth origin story, hamstrung by its cheesy choral backing and bare earnestness. “Backpackers” lands somewhere else entirely, with Glover striking back against imagined naysayers of all kinds, from other rappers to critics.
The overall result is a messy jumble that, in its inability to find a consistent tone, ends up in a place that hasn’t really been explored before. Glover is by turns brash and emotionally exposed, mixing the incessant self-doubt of a Drake or Kid Cudi with the kind of hyper-literate referentiality of Das Racist, jumping from Truffaut and Rugrats references to weepy, violin-backed tracks about fractured relationships. It’s a fascinating mess, one which uses comedy for ballast but never turns it into a shield, a cathartic unloading of a life’s worth of emotional baggage.
A lot of this centers on Glover’s racial discomfort; he refers to himself as an “Oreo” at least four times, implicitly convinced that his choices and upbringing have somehow made him less than entirely black. So, in the process of dredging up his own issues, Glover ends up presenting a reality that’s usually overlooked in this type of music, less focused on gritty street narratives than the actual world inhabited by many black Americans, pestered by questions of identity. It’s a world that Glover still seems to inhabit, one which contributes to the lack of solid identity on Camp, but also provides it with a sad, stirring pulse.