Album Review: Childish Gambino - Because the Internet

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

Donald Glover has done a lot of thinking in the past two years. “That Camp was a million years ago, sing me a different song” he raps on the closer of his new record Because the Internet. The referenced 2011 studio album debut does feel like forever ago now. After self-releasing three albums and three EPs for free, Childish Gambino made a proper entrance with one of the most critically polarizing records of 2011. But even back then, Glover was ready to roll with the punches. “Why does every black actor gotta rap some?” he jokingly asks on the Camp single “Bonfire”. Not that they necessarily had the right to say so in the first place, but the biggest complaint against Camp was one of seeming insincerity. The story Glover was telling sounded familiar, and as an actor entering a musical circle that, with time, has been calling for a deeper level of humanity, skeptics were abounding. It seems in time that even the favorable have succumbed to the blogosphere peer pressure to mark Glover as “uncool”. No one blinked an eye when he dropped the impressive ROYALTY mixtape last year, featuring Schoolboy Q, Danny Brown, the RZA, Ghostface Killah, Beck, Chance the Rapper, HAIM, and a pretty awesomely hilarious outro from Tina Fey. And now, two weeks before Christmas – too late to make any “Best of 2013” lists and not associated with the holidays whatsoever – Glover is dropping studio LP number two. Truly, he must be a glutton for punishment.

Really, though, the joke’s on you – Because the Internet is perhaps the best possible second studio record for Childish Gambino. Glover has responded to all of his critics with a quick pen and an unorthodox approach. Rather than see his association with script writing and acting as a potential liability, Because the Internet embraces both, with all of his powers combined using all possible forms of Internet communication. The record is comprised of 19 tracks, a thirty-minute album prequel on Youtube called Clapping For The Wrong Reasons, a full-length script, a handful of music videos, and a series of short, gif-style videos to accompany the script and the album, as well as a couple of anecdotal Tweets and Instagram photos that go along with the plot. Truly, if they took the time, even Arcade Fire would marvel at the complexity of this album roll out. Childish Gambino has returned with not an album, but a tripped-out, grooving sixty-minute soundtrack to an internal monologue about the state of celebrity, the state of his own personal mental health, and the state of decay of the whole of human thinking that is the Internet.

As soon as the beat drops on “Crawl”, it’s evident that the Glover we saw on Camp and the one we see here are night and day. Along with his typical producer Ludwig Göransson, on the new record, Glover has also enlisted help from Stefan Ponce, who most recently worked on the best of Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap. The result comes in infinitely tighter tracks and an eclectic album flow that only grows on you as time goes on. The mix here ranges from dark, jazzy killer (“WORLDSTAR”) to airy summer jam (“The Worst Guys”) to synth pop genius (“3005”) to club banger (“Earth: The Oldest Computer”), and all of it totally works. Plus, Gambino’s been upping his chops over the last two years. Joined by rising Compton rapper Problem, “Sweatpants” is probably the best shit-talking Gambino has ever spat. Despite its brevity, “The Party” goes harder in one minute than most do in four. Then later, “Urn” sees Glover breaking out a sultry falsetto for a down-tempo track that will have you nodding along. In short, even if you liked Camp, forget everything you thought you knew about Childish Gambino. Because the Internet sees Glover 100% in his element for maybe the first time ever in his career.

But if you want to see Glover with all the shine, you need to read the script along with the record. Because the Internet tells the story of a nameless main character (the one fading into obscurity on the album’s cover) who has lived 15 years of his life in response to a feeling of complete social alienation he experienced at camp (this experience is documented on the last half of Camp’s, “That Power”). The result is a life lived only on the Internet. The Boy (even dubbed so in his adulthood) considers himself a smalltime Andrew Auernheimer, obsessed with the power he has in the digital world while his real life stays stagnant and stale. Thanks to his dad's shady investments, he has all the money he could want and no need to hold a real job, so he and his friends surf, smoke, and party their lives away, while an inevitable downfall always seems just over the horizon. The Boy finally starts to question this lifestyle after witnessing a death and resisting the urge to film the whole thing on his phone. Once the shine of the digital world starts to fade, he realizes there isn't much left in his emotionless and void life. On Because the Internet, Glover is totally in character as the "rich kid asshole" he's created, and the result is an intriguing and unique story arc.

The people and locations in the script all parallel Glover's real life process of recording the record. The Boy and his friends all party at a mansion dubbed The Temple, which was Glover's nickname for the home of Chris Bosh, where he recorded the record and filmed Clapping For The Wrong Reasons. Chance the Rapper takes the character of Marcus, while Jhené Aiko (last heard on Drake's "From Time") takes Naomi, the Boy's main love interest. Guests on the album aren't the focus. After all, since this is all an internal monologue, it would be out of character and inconsistent to not have Glover on every second. Every small cameo, from Chance to Azealia Banks, is just an accent, though those Thundercat bass lines sure do add to the mix nicely.

Bits of Gambino's rap career and journey thus far are all here (critics embody a pack of wolves discussing a 2 Chainz set), almost like an alternate universe where Childish Gambino has allowed the critics and the Internet gossip and the myth of celebrity become him. But where somewhere around "Flight of the Navigator", Because the Internet shifts to a struggle for identity, almost as if Glover is documenting the personal growth he's done in the last year. The "Yaphet Kotto" freestyle Gambino dropped a couple months ago gave us some emotional context for this record. Glover doesn't really take the critics to heart - it's just a mutual understanding at this point. But where The Boy would break at the point of insecurity and slink back into the spineless, faceless corners of the Internet, Childish Gambino rises above and pushes forward.

Because the Internet is out now on Glassnote. You can listen to the record in its entirety in context of the script over at the album's website. Be on the look out for a special limited (of 800) run of red vinyl this week only at independent record stores.

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