Just a writeup on Royalty to tide you guys over until the official review drops. Solely opinion, not stare decisis.
Childish Gambino, aka Donald Glover, annoys me to no end as a rapper.
My dislike of his music always confuses me, considering how great his sketch comedy and further acting roles on “Community” and other various shows has been. Glover’s quirky, spastic persona makes whatever comedic soup he temporally resides in boil over in side-clenching excess, and his abilities in a leading role never falter. He’s great… whenever a script and a camera are involved.
Whenever he’s stuck with a mic and his blackberry, well… he’s just a douchebag. I never understood how other people considered his nasally, falsetto register, puerile sense of humor, constant barrage of punchlines and misplaced chauvinism as a great alternative to the normal hip hop routine. Its the exact same thing, he just has the technical ability to put it together.
Sure, if he were playing a character of a raging asshat of a rapper, he would be spot on! He’d be the thinking man’s Lil B, but his frequent bouts of self-pity insinuate how serious Gambino is about what he produces, and quite frankly it gets on my nerves. “Oh no, look at me, I’m a black guy with a college degree, despised by other black guys my age for being myself and misunderstood by everybody else. Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.”
Give me a fucking break, the same applies to Tutankhamen, Kunta Kente, Gustavas Vassa, MLK, Malcolm X, Basquiat, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Prince, Black Thought, Drake, Kanye West, Steve Urkel, President Obama… the list goes on.
I do, however, give major props on his consistency in producing his music. That IS his sole claim to unique flavor besides his extracurricular accomplishments. And although I can give or take his singing, it is by many standards very good. Its more of a personal preference, so no harm done unless Drake-level panty-dropping crooning comes into play.
But Royalty really takes my disdain on the chin. The mixtape Gambino put out not only has all the parts I normally groan about, but for some reason I like it. A lot. From the beats to the rhymes to the great features to the Tina Fey, there’s not much here for me to “hate.”
The first thing that caught my attention were the beats. Gambino’s usually on his music theory harpsichord-strings-bird-chirps-and-dog-whistles ish, the sort of stuff that seems more ambitious than necessary, although I commend him for it as said before. But from the sharp repeating two-tone synth and atom-shattering bass on “One Up,” the raspy, triumphant horns of the Hypnotic Brass Orchestra on “American Royalty” to the Parkinsons-riddled sample on “RIP,” Gambino proves that he’s coming into his own as a producer. And yes, its a more appealing sound, but its a post-album mixtape. These beats are designed for vibing and lyrical destruction.
And lets not overlook the inclusion of other people’s production, which adds a nice mix into the palette: there’s the swelling production by Boi-1da on “Black Faces,’ some tried-and-true Ghostface soul by Myke Murda (handled by Pretty Toney himself) on “It May Be Glamour Life” and two friggin’ Beck cuts, one of which, “Bronchitis,” takes unnerving, ethereal production to another level. I consider it as great experience for him; he’s not taking a break, just getting cultured.
So now the rhymes. Oh the rhymes. I think to put it in easy terms, its like he gave me seedless watermelon rap- no pockets of hard, useless detritus to spit out, just cut it open and eat the juicy goodness (pause… what the hell was that?). He sets it off on “We Ain’t Them” with a great recap of his past year: “I’m fuckin’ round with the truth/went to see the Roots/Quest brought me back on stage in a suit,” and then asserts his position as a black trendsetter, I suppose, on “Black Faces”: “League of my own, Swag Geena Davis/only rapper make a 100K on your playlist/nigga talk on twitter but in life they don’t say shit/my rollies so racist, all black faces.” The rest of the album mainly follows suit in him talking more braggadocious verses, but not to the point of cringeworthy eye-rolling. (Remember “She’s an overachiever/ All she does is suck seed”? Yeah, none of that here.)
Aside from “Unnecessary,” where the Black Hippy duo overdo it for me with their new-found nihilistic aggression, Gambino and his guests provide really nice bars. Standouts include the two-track Wu fest with RZA and Ghostface just up and robbing his shit for five straight minutes (and plus, when was the last time we had an actual RZA verse?), Beck’s spectacularly esoteric musings about centrifugal force and whatnot on “Silk Pillow,” and Danny Brown who goes the fuck IN on “Toxic.” Man, his verse is such a rush of ignorance and nonsense, but its so damn good.
Plus, Gambino does his best trying to stay in line with his guests, succeeding the most on “Real Estate,” his six-minute brag about Georgia, where his homies Alley Boy, Swank, and Tina Fey get baseball bats and break fool’s kneecaps while he stands in the background, rubbing his hands Birdman style.
OK I’m exaggerating a bit but… shit was mad exciting.
I probably like this mixtape so much because of how ready I was to hate it. He toned down his self-pity and got deep about real trauma and life situations, like the death of his aunt, his cousin’s AIDS and, if I’m to be mistaken, the upcoming birth of his baby girl. He still brags, but for some reason it feels way more on point and way less bloated that usual, as if he has a more humble core. This is, to me, a dope mixtape through and through.
But I’m aware that this might be the only time I’d say that from his work. Most true Gambino have had mixed opinions about that (mixed meaning “not pleasant,”) and chances are he’ll be back on his nerdy-and-nasty bag of tricks soon. But until then, “we fuckin’ up the hardwood, homie.”