Donald Glover is a clever guy. He claims as much on “The Worst Guys,” a track from Because the Internet, his second full-length album as Childish Gambino: “Tia and Tamara in my bed, I’m a Smart Guy.” He’s referencing the mid-’90s show starring the Mowry twins’ little brother, Tahj, and barring the overtly icky consequences behind his implied incest, the line is a turn of phrase that plumbs the kind of Buzzfeed-baiting nostalgia that makes every piece of pop-cultural detritus from the ’90s somehow worth remembering. More than that, it furthers the general message of the whole album, which is that for all his posturing and charm, Glover may not have it in him to participate in the kind of bacchanalia required of his position as a young, burgeoning, multi-talented rap star. Halfway between throwaway wordplay and trenchant comment about fame, the lyric says a lot about where Glover’s head is at: As a former sketch comedian, writer on 30 Rock, and star of the sitcom Community, he leans on his wit as his most formidable weapon. That he has to go on the attack to preempt all criticisms sure to find him via the take-no-prisoners thunderdome of the Internet, he’s also assuming the role of martyr, presuming no one will let him simply make the kind of music he wants to make. At least not with impunity. No, the world has changed a lot since “Party All the Time”; there’s little patience nowadays given to a comedian launching a serious music career.
“The Worst Guys” also features Chance the Rapper, who only pops in to help sing the hook, which itself seems like a clever meta-joke (the Rapper isn’t rapping, get it?). The partnership between the two barely-legal wunderkinds makes a lot of sense: Glover’s turn on “Favorite Song,” from Chance’s excellent mixtape Acid Rap, is nimble and hilarious, one more guest spot—along with his work with some of the year’s best, such as Danny Brown—that confirms Glover’s mettle is up to snuff with the current champions of underground rap. Like Chance, Glover’s palette is broad, vacuuming Top 40 tropes voraciously into his purview, hoping to stamp each with his singular voice. “WORLDSTAR” and “Sweatpants” cop to studying Chris Brown and Kanye, respectively, while mean-mugging through bitter, minimal beats punctuated by odd bursts of synth euphony, as if Glover—who produced most of these tracks with TV composer and newly acquired Roc Nation in-house producer Ludwig Göransson—can’t trust the arrangements to build their own momentum.
Elsewhere, Glover competently croons in a spot-on parody (intended or not) of the Weeknd’s “Rolling Stone,” before which he performs not just one, but two Wiz Khalifa impressions over the catchy, treacly “Pink Toes” and the forgettable “Life: The Biggest Troll.” At the end of the album, he goes toe to toe with Azealia Banks on their anachronistic jungle jam “Earth: The Oldest Computer,” which, along with “Life,” should win some sort of award for the worst title of a song ever conceived. Like most of Banks’s music, “Earth” is positioned as a track that its creators think is much more epic and important than its Daft Punk-ish underpinnings deserve, which, given Glover’s penchant for being utterly beholden to every instinct but his own, is probably her fault.
Bloated with all manner of interstitial suites and assorted skit-like stopgaps, the 19-track Because the Internet could serviceably represent the titular web Glover finds so perplexing. As a survey of the millennial zeitgeist, peppered with numerous references to early-’90s Nickelodeon shows and seemingly unable to rest on the strength of one idea at any time, the album is a suitable follow-up to 2012’s Camp, wherein Glover devoured every popular facet of hip-hop and R&B radio to prove he was more than just an actor with outsized ambitions. Yet Because the Internet suffers for the same reasons its predecessor did: In constantly showcasing his versatility, Glover loses track of any original voice, consumed instead by the needs for both validation and for a kind of existential defensiveness.
On Camp, Glover spent much of the time dissecting his upper-class upbringing while attempting to reconcile it with hip-hop’s less forgiving stereotypes regarding race. With Because the Internet, he’s translated much of that bitterness and rejection from his peers into weirdly self-serious satires (or so I’m assuming, given the almost total lack of sarcasm), such as on the aforementioned Chris Brown-biting “Sweatpants,” where he drops the hook, “Don’t be mad ’cuz I’m doin’ me better than you doin’ you,” without an ounce of self-awareness. Which I understand is the point, but next to such insightfully devious couplets as “Got a glass house in the Palisades, that a-k-a/White hood, white hood, O-K-K-K,” the wildly shifting tone of every song on the album leaves little room for character development. In lieu of building a musical persona apart from his comedic beginnings, Glover shrouds himself in recognizable masks and thick, opaque layers, more concerned with being taken seriously as a musician than allowing his conspicuous talent—of which he has legion—to speak as validation itself.
Which is why even the title of the album works against Glover’s favor, acting more like a crutch than an intelligent conceptual touch point to a greater discussion about the hyper-ADD nature of the online machine that births such stars as Childish Gambino in the first place. Because the Internet is poised like an excuse, a vague answer to all kinds of questions about the sincerity and consistency of Glover’s album-long excursion into sounds he thinks he should enjoy rather than sounds he actually seems to. Why does he look so mad on the cover? Because the Internet. We’re all to blame.