Because of hipster backlash, authenticity has largely become a moot point in popular music, save for hip-hop. Whether this is valid and whether an artist’s past or how a project is funded is relevant to the actual text can continue to be debated ad nauseam. The truth is, with regards to Childish Gambino, most people have already made up their minds regarding Donald Glover, in the sense that they know whether their opinion of Glover and his over-arching celebrity matter when listening to Childish Gambino.
What is really being talked about in a conversation about authenticity is believability, trust, and honesty. Does the listener believe what they are hearing? Not necessarily did the action described really happen, but does the spirit of what is being conveyed come from an honest place? Does the artist have capital-T “Truth” to convey? Or is there deception at work? Is the artist trying to trick us? A listener doesn’t want to agree with a sentiment, find meaning in a story, or enjoy the progression of a narrative, and then find out they were being manipulated.
As Pusha T says on this year’s excellent “Nosetalgia”, “This is timeless simply cuz it’s honest.”
Because it’s honest. Camp, the debut LP from Gambino, received some notable acclaim, and some very visible ridicule, and the argument between the two hinged on the issue of honesty. So, it’s no surprise that Because the Internet arrives fists raised, ready for the challenge of rap purists who wouldn’t accept Gambino under any condition (his opinion). That attitude was also present on Camp, and it’s exhausting to listen to a rapper address strawman arguments, particularly for the 99% of people who aren’t rap purists, and some of whom might actually come into an album willing to accept it on its own terms. But, if you are coming into an album like this, Gambino gives you about as much benefit of the doubt as the rap world gives his music.
Listening without prejudice to the facts that Gambino is a moderately successful comedian, actor, and writer, most notably for 30 Rock and Community, is possible. However, the content of Because the Internet would eventually lead you right back to the same skepticism of the validity of Donald Glover’s rap. On “Worldstar”, Gambino pantomimes the cadences of both Mac Miller and Kanye West; the album never distinguishes a style that is his own, always sounding like one step removed from his contemporaries, something that is bound to be more common as rap’s history extends to future generations. Other non-lyrical red flags are waved by the lack of contributors he has been able to feature, with exceptions of Chance the Rapper (underutilized in his role) and Azealia Banks (possibly the worst person possible to have endorsing a resume). When your most worthwhile feature on a rap album is Thundercat, the listener ought to ask the question: Why?
Because of the Hollywood star in Glover, it’s now coming to light that Because the Internet is actually (probably) much more than just an album of loosely narrative songs with not enough insight and far too many overly clever non sequiturs. With the announcement that there is actually a script based on the songs of Because the Internet (or, more likely, vice versa) and the convincing theory that Glover has been living the plot over the course of the last year (creating a “concept world” rather than a mere concept album), Childish Gambino fans now have all the more reason to proclaim his genius. Likewise, his detractors now have all the more reason to question everything about him. When, as has been suggested, Glover is using interviews, social media, and every other public communication to actually create the multimedia concept art, there has to be a reason for it. But, how can we believe anything about someone who considers the world a concept art piece and makes the fans just part of the story, like extras in a movie?
Just because he’s a character, “The Boy,” it doesn’t mean there can’t still be honesty, truth, or something to get out of the Because the Internet world. But, for Gambino, there is only emptiness, and isolation, and really poor artistic decisions. We know Gambino can write decently; after all, people seem to like his episodes of 30 Rock. The script that accompanies this album is not half-baked, but it does oscillate between eye-roll inducing cliches and aggravating modern flares like using “smh” in a sentence that isn’t dialogue, or having Rick Ross play The Boy’s father, or even fucking naming a character “The Boy.” And, that’s only the first couple of pages. At the end of Camp, the album ends with this story about The Boy never growing up, remaining the child on the bus forever. Metaphorically. Here, in reality, Glover is acting like he never grew up as well, offering up some of the least mature writing choices imaginable, featuring tricks that only impress the easily impressed. Indeed, if Because the Internet was your introduction to rap music, it would probably be fascinating. So, this reveal, that everything has been in character, doesn’t make the immaturity of the music acceptable. It’s the artistic equivalent of throwing up a brick from the three-point line and goofily claiming, “I meant to miss.”
What you are left with is an ice sculpture, intricate in its creation, taking more care than any of us would likely appreciate, but also fleeting in its ability to captivate, and ultimately about as useful as a puddle of water. There’s a line in closer “Life: The Biggest Troll (Andrew Auernheimer)” about “spending more on friends than TBS,” which, initially, is funny in a way that makes you think the words “that’s funny” in a timid, unsure voice. It’s also a rap line about Friends. No one should be rapping about Friends, even if you made some money writing for shows on Friends’ old network.
True story: I used to bartend, and on two occasions I can recall male customers asking me, “You ever watch Friends?” Both times I said no, because I did not want to have a conversation in public about Friends. But, really, who the fuck hasn’t seen Friends? It’s omnipresent in American culture. So, I would let the men recount whatever anecdote Friends had so impressed upon them that they needed to share it, and I’d probably fake laugh and say “that’s funny” at the end. I did that because I was nice and didn’t want to tell those guys that Friends is lame and they should be embarrassed for liking it so much that they ask their bartender to talk about it with them.
Because I was nice, this review skirts the same issue, the heart of why people won’t like this album. Because it is not cool. This probably stems from the lack of honesty (and indeed, can you think of a less honest show than Friends?). Certainly, you can find moments that are effective on the collection. “Crawl” keeps the head-shakers at a minimum with the legitimate hook setting the table for a hypothetical thematic feast, loneliness advertised as one of, if not the, main dish. But, rather than provide a solution, or even insight into the Internet reality, Gambino simply adds to the frustrations. The big reveal at the album’s conclusion is that he was (likely) trolling all the trolls, but what about the fans? What about those of us who don’t need our time wasted merely to make the point that someone was wasting our time? Because the Internet should read as Because I Can, as if the anonymity of the web gives us no culpability for our actions or our art. Because none of this excuses literally sounding like a jackass on “The Worst Guys” or that stomach-turning “squishy squishy” sound on “Worldstar” (or for that matter, lyrics like “got more likes than a white girl talking” that are just unnecessary and uninteresting commentaries on race).
Because the screenplay exists and Glover’s TV past won’t fade out of the discussion, it is worthwhile to note that in movies, twist endings or big reveals are common. But music isn’t a movie. We don’t watch a movie with the same expectations as we have when listening to music. And, yes, the dedication that Glover has seemingly displayed in the project is admirable. But he just doesn’t seem to get music on this album. Maybe it’s because of his taste, or because he is trying too hard to stand out, or because of his hubris, or because he has lost touch with reality, or maybe it is because of the internet. And, as the title may suggest who is to blame for this ordeal of an album from Glover’s perspective, for the listener, Because Childish Gambino would fit better.
Essential Tracks: “Crawl”, “Life: The Biggest Troll (Andrew Auernheimer)”