A well-defined comic persona is vital to a comedy world breakthrough. Donald Glover’s, best displayed as Troy on NBC’s beloved Community but established before that in his online Derrick Comedy shorts and the underrated Hardy Boys-gone-wrong feature Mystery Team, is a lovable, slightly dim naïf failing to convincingly feign sophistication. An effective rap persona (Jay-Z’s cold-blooded CEO for example) is similarly useful, mined over the course of a long career, played to or pushed back against. Camp, the debut record from Glover’s rap alter-ego Childish Gambino, establishes his lyrical voice by shoving hard against the sides of that suburban, nerdy, wisecracking construct. It reads as a calculated attempt to be taken seriously. You hear him getting preemptively defensive towards pretty much everybody who might be listening. His overriding viewpoint is similar to the one espoused by the Afropunk movement, that any idea of “real blackness” is way too limiting. He expresses it within a mainstream hip-hop aesthetic (rather than punk guitar). The lyrics are best when dissecting unfair expectations put on non-traditional black performers. “Pitchfork only likes rappers who are crazy or hood, man,” is one clever line that rings true. But there’s some range. He’s pretty good when recounting an upbringing that’s tougher than you may have assumed. On “Outside,” he movingly frets over rough circumstances that tripped up a beloved cousin. He fast-forwards to the present, giving nice detail to a young, affluent lifestyle on “L.E.S.” (“I guess meet me at Piano’s/cross-fading off of nanos.) Prevalent girl talk and a smooth singing voice have launched some Drake comparisons, but his songs aren’t as strange as that ex-actor’s can be. Camp delivers strongly sung commercial hooks, forceful electro beats (the neon thump of “Heartbeats” is especially great), and doses of the fast, witty wordplay that Glover’s day job would suggest. So why’s it weirdly unlikable?
Glover may sound like a perfect gent in comparison with a grubby nihilist like Tyler, the Creator, but there are definitely moments on Camp when he’s far less than charming. Beyond of-the-moment complaints about hashtag rap, a line like “I made the beat and murdered it. Casey Anthony” from “Bonfire” is a bluntly lazy Family Guy joke for a smart comedian to make. Grosser are bits of “Backpacker” which lurches in a darker direction meant to blur his geeky image. Responding to internet claims of lyrical misogyny he mocks, “I wrote on rape culture junior year at Brown, so I’m allowed to say what all his raps are about.” Following it with, “You better shut your mouth before I fuck it.” Ugh. Nothing like a sexually violent threat to win that particular argument. He presents himself throughout as romantically conflicted, getting emo about an undefined relationship on “Heartbeat,” closing the album with a nostalgic Wonder Years-y monologue about a girl on a school bus. But he persistently comes off as kind of a dick, using his newfound fame to sport-fuck admirers. It takes a sort of severely boneheaded naïvety to be truly hurt when a performer’s personal art doesn’t end up matching a winning on-screen character. But hoping for better isn’t a crime.