Thoughts on Childish Gambino’s ‘Royalty’

I’ve heard so many opinions about Donald Glover over the years that I’ve listened to him rap under his Childish Gambino moniker. Maybe it was because I was hanging out with a lot of pretentious hipsters (myself included) at the time when I first heard him, but I didn’t know a lot of black people listening to Culdesac, the I Am Just a Rapper mixtapes or even his break out, untitled EP.

In fact, I didn’t know a lot of anyone listening to his rap. I saw Gambino perform twice, in two very different settings. The first was on the Las Vegas strip during his I AM DONALD tour. It was filled with hot Asians who he raps about so much, your typical rap fans and mostly pale white kids with thick rimmed glasses and skinny jeans. The second time, on his Sign Up tour, was in Athens, Ga. – home of University of Georgia. Less than two hours from his hometown of Stone Mountain. Maybe it was because it was a douchey bro heavy location, but it was filled with basically the same crowd; instead of hipsters it was mostly frat boys.

Still, a lot of white people love Childish Gambino. So many times I’ve heard someone say, “I don’t normally listen to rap, but Childish is different.”

Which he is.

A lot of people were worried that Camp was going to be his attempt to become more mainstream rap. That it wasn’t going to pack the humorous, pop culture driven punch he had become known for. Instead it was an album he wish he heard when he was 13 years old. It was beautifully composed to be performed with live instruments and highlight the fact that it was more than a rap or hip-hop or an urban album. It was an LP that I felt at times showed a very exposed lyricist as well as that punch line driven rapper Donald Glover broke out as.

Still there were a lot of opinions: “He’s too white;” “He’s too black;” “He’s not mainstream enough for me;” “He’s selling out;” “All he does is talk about how he doesn’t fit in;” “He’s trying to be too hard to come off like a thug” or what have you.

When he recently spent 40 tweets expressing his opinion on critics and fans opinions of him, I knew that something was in the air. “Eat Your Vegetables” – a track not on the Royalty mixtape – was met with harsh criticism. Then when he slowly but surely started leaking tracks to be released on the upcoming release and even more criticism was thrown his way.

What was it going to be like? That question slipped from lip to lip, was re-Tumbl’d, tweeted and asked to death. We knew there’d be some big name guest rappers featured on a lot of tracks. The rumored names (Ghostface Killah, RZA for example) hinted that this wasn’t going to be your average Childish release. It had to be blacker and more mainstream than ever. But then he released a Beck produced track that featured the auteur artist and thoughts that maybe Royalty was going to be all over the place entered fans and critics minds.

So did the hype and intrigue surrounding Royalty live up to the actual mixtape?

It’s hard to say. Fanboys, Gambino Girls and blogs dedicated to the rapper will say it’s a masterpiece and fight to the death to anyone who criticizes it. Some critics will love it and a lot will hate it. But why can’t it fall somewhere in the middle? A mixtape is made to take chances. Some songs will succeed and some will fail. So why is it, for lack of a better phrase, so black and white?

For starters, discussing Royalty as an album is difficult; mainly because it’s wrong to call it an album. It is, after all, a mixtape. It’s best to look at the tape as another era in Glover’s life. Break the 28 year old’s life into how you please, but the summer of 2012 is definitely the Royalty era. He’s crowned himself and deservedly so.

Lyrically, he’s still the same. Save for the obvious changes to what topics he has to rap about now. Did you really expect him to rap about not fitting in when he is currently at the pinnacle of hip hop? Didn’t think so. He’s gone from rapping exclusively about his swag, Asian girls he’s in love with, penis jokes, etc. to touching on anything and everything. He’s still able to hone his skill for puns and wordplay and make some of the most intelligent cultural references in the game.

Touching on every song would be insane; especially because I spent close to 800 words discussing my general thoughts on the artist. There are some extremely high parts on the mixtape. Most songs are album-worthy, but then there are a few that either seem lost or need just a little work.

I’ve listened to Royalty multiple times now and have pages of notes. It’s been two days since the mixtape dropped and I think I still agree with my original note: “The horns on “American Royalty” are the shit. The best verse on the mixtape.”

“American Royalty” is definitely the centerpiece of the entire album. It’s a climax featuring RZA going hard over Gambino’s best produced track. But it does get a run for its money with the tracks “Black Faces” and “We Ain’t Them.” Those three songs have the ability to draw in a lot of new fans who have pushed Gambino into a distant file of “never want to listen to.”

He also has the ability to slow it down (“Won’t Stop,” “Make It Go Right,” “Wonderful”) and connect with listeners on a completely different level. In fact, “Wonderful” is just too much of a heartbreak. If “American Royalty” is the peak of Childish going hard, this inspiring track is the peak of Gambino spilling his guts on a track. My notes simply said, “These lyrics…damn.” I was literally left speechless.

While “Bronchitis” and “One Up” had me vibing like I did to old CG songs, I felt the production on the latter was a little rough around the edges. It wasn’t the weakest song on the mixtape, but it’s one that shouldn’t have been weak in the first place.

Overall, his mixtape goes through the stratosphere at some points, but loses steam at other times. It’s a collection of songs that explores a lot and jumps from theme to theme, style to style. You’ll find tracks you’ll listen to over and over and discover ones you’ll skip from time to time. It’s just a question of personal preference.

My main question, and maybe it’s not one worth asking, is whether or not these songs will be able to be played live with his backing band. I know a lot of the songs can be played on instruments, but there are a lot of tracks that are too traditionally hip hop and would come off better with a DJ spinning behind him.

Maybe Donald Glover is done with the old era of being the first to do it different and can no longer be labeled as alternative/indie hip-hop. Maybe not. I think he nailed it on the head on “Arrangement” when he rapped, “You don’t know Childish. Nigga, me neither.”

That’s the beauty with Glover/Gambino. Who knows what’s going to happen next? Another mixtape? Another Glassnote release? It’s all up in the air and we’re just barely holding onto the whirlwind experience of the rapper/actor/comedian/writer’s life.

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