Obtaining credibility in hip-hop is not a task easily done. Fundamentally, it’s an art form that manifested from an extensive history of systemic violence that targeted African Americans. Hip-hop music became the voice of the people in underdeveloped and neglected areas like The Bronx, in New York. The artful expression of anguish. Throughout the late-70’s and 80’s, hip-hop started diversifying its sound and began its stretch into mainstream appeal where it has since remained. When the art form itself took a grand ascension into popularity, with it came a number of imposters. Rappers who talk a life they never lived, tearing at the very roots of hip-hop. “What’s the point of rapping if you can’t be yourself huh? That’s why I come first like my cellphone.” Childish Gambino’s cry of acceptance rings out with all the gusto of a new school rapper who has found identity in his nerdiness via pop-culture reference-rap on debut album Camp.
Rather than be imposter, Gambino plays the role of outsider. Outsider to a genre that he loves and respects yet feels suspect because of his social status, mixed-appearance, nerdish tendencies and the fact that he grew up knowing both of his parents. All outdated concepts, even in 2011 but his statements retain their earnesty because of ‘show, don’t tell’ rap style. Over the chime of a high piano chord and orchestral drums and violins that switch to a distorted synth, Gambino reminisces on stealing Tommy Hilfiger from the 7th grade lost and found, and pointing out racism’s subtlety in society by not feeling black enough for the barber shops he frequented as a teen. His infatuation seems to be with changing the perception of those doubt him as a serious threat in hip-hop.
How does he follow through with that? Well, the man can definitely rap. Rhythmically, he is as advanced as any veteran and it’s extremely noticeable over the largely self-produced instrumentals that often sound grand and complex enough to echo influence of Kanye’s, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. His verses are internal conversations with himself and the choruses become declarations of self-awareness sung beautifully by Gambino himself. By now it is fair to identify his effectiveness as at least a triple threat on the album. Serving as producer, rapper and singer work to make the album all the more personal. He is at his best when he leaves behind his dominant wielded metaphors and bares his emotional soul on the track. Tracks like ‘Bonfire’, ‘LES’ and ‘Hold You Down’ show that Gambino has more to offer than wit. He competently reflects on relationships and life in a way that is both critical and heart-grabbing.
In the end, I think Gambino gets lost in the assumption that hip-hop music is as unaccepting of nerdiness as his high school classmates were. In reality, hip-hop artists have a rich history of being classically defined a nerd. From being huge fans of chess like Wu-tang Clan’s GZA or Eminem’s child-like sense of love for comic books. His nerd-status in life becomes a metaphor for how he is looked at in the rap-game but it isn’t incredibly accurate. To the average listener, Gambino never was that nerdy kid in high-school, their first perception of him is that he is a well rounded rapper/singer. Luckily his wittiness and wicked flow carry him through the songs that focus on loose metaphors about his feelings of false-insecurity while the songs focused on things other than his own perception of self show signs of that fuel that made artists like Drake famous.