Childish Gambino’s second full-length provokes a lot of thoughts without settling on any of them.
I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about Childish Gambino’s new album for about three days straight. So far, here’s what I’ve got:
– It’s called Because The Internet, which seems like it’s missing a word somewhere. He could’ve at least #hashtagged it. Over time the title feels like an explanation of sorts. Like: “Q: Why’d you put so many links in this blog post? A: Because the Internet.”
– I want to refer to him as “Donald Glover” instead of “Childish Gambino” during this blog post, but that seems disrespectful. Then again, he used a Wu Tang Name Generator to create his (admittedly awesome) rap name, so how disrespectful can it be?
– My official Wu-Name is “Top-Heavy Hookjaw”. Anyway…
– As you might guess from the album title, there’s a lot of techospeak on these songs. They’re mostly used for puns (my two favorites come right in a row on the song “WORLDSTAR”, itself a reference to this popular site: “She on Hollywood and Vine/ thinkin’ that she Hollywood on Vine./ Making movies with her friends all the time./ Showin’ off her ass, that’s a net twerk.”) but if there’s a theme running through the record, it’s the intense paranoia and self-doubt that comes from the interconnected age we live in. Specifically, it centers on how that kind of effervescent paranoia relates to Gambino’s personal life and his interactions with people as a celebrity.
– That being said, there’s not much of a narrative here—instead, it seems like we’re being treated to random thoughts and ideas that morph and splinter in a naturally (to my ears anyway) disjointed fashion. In fact, this whole album seems completely devoid of a traditional story, which is especially surprising when you consider how much of a through-line his debut Camp had with its ‘lost summer love letters’ vibe. As luck would have it, Gambino released a full screenplay tonight that portends to make sense of the album’s disparate elements (spoiler alert: it doesn’t).
– It’s going to be tempting to read this album as Gambino’s “drug record” from the way it combines scattered sonic templates with philosophical musings. A term like that seems really diminishing to me, though, like you can just brush aside some of these ideas. Let me put it this way: I’m sure drugs were involved in the making of this record, but I’d rather see them as a helpful addition than as a hinderance. Very few of these songs end in the same place they start, although many of the ones that do (“Sweatpants”, “3005”, “Shadows”) are favorites. This jumping around can be fortunate when Gambino is doing something that doesn’t quite work, but it can also be frustrating when he stumbles on something interesting and just moves on. My absolute favorite track on Before The Internet is the interlude-esque “The Party”, an achingly short half minute of blistering rap that’s cut off right when it sounds like Gambino’s working himself into a frenzy. I’ll never know if he can sustain a whole song like that, but I’d like to find out.
– The general “skipping around” nature of the album really makes the case that Gambino’s been listening to a lot of Frank Ocean. I’ve spoken to some people who complain that Gambino is “stealing flows” all over this album, mainly Kendrick Lamar and Drake. I can hear some similar cadences, but my answer to “flow stealing” critiques is (and has been) always the same: you can’t fault someone for rapping well in a rhythm that reminds you of someone else’s style.
– Because he IS a talented rapper, especially when it comes to turning a punchline. There’s a lot of moments on this album that could be their own bulleted list, and his turns of phrase can be ridiculously entertaining. (Even the cheesy ones are particularly memorable—“patience/doctor” line in “3005”, I’m looking at you.) Ultimately, this record’s laurels will rest on whether he created an environment that people will want to go back to, either by getting his emotions across or writing good songs.
– Here’s the thing, and why I don’t see myself coming back to Because The Internet in a year: I don’t think he wrote that many good songs. The whole lumpy, sample-and-trumpet-laden mess is interesting, for sure. But only a few of these songs have hooks that really sink in, and often he’s rapping too quickly for the emotion to get across.
– Part of me wonders if this entire record is in some (unconscious) way a full-length reaction to Pitchfork’s eviscerating review of Gambino’s debut album. (In turn, I’ve always thought of that review as an 1300-word overblown response to a single line on Camp: “Pitchfork only like rappers that crazy or hood”. Man, they’ve got beef. At this rate Pitchfork’s going to do a feature claiming Childish Gambino as the worst rapper alive.)
– I don’t think Gambino’s quite sure what his “sound” is yet, but he’s a talented enough rapper that he can make every sub-genre work, at least a little bit. Look at the difference between Camp (for all their harshness, Pitchfork did get their “Kanye crate-digging” criticisms right), the Beck-produced trap on Royalty, his verse on Chance The Rapper’s jazz-influenced Acid Rap, and the way this album dances right up to the edge of psychedelia. He might still be figuring himself out. (Actually, scratch that—he’s definitely still figuring himself out.)
– Regardless of the motivation, this is the longest “First Impressions” post I’ve ever written. So maybe Childish Gambino got what he wanted.
– Maybe he doesn’t care if this record “stands the test of time”. Maybe that’s the point of this whole album. After all, why put yourself out like this if you’re nervous about what people think of you? Well…that’s just what we do these days. Because the Internet.
Favorite Tracks: “The Party”, “Sweatpants”, “The Worst Guys [Feat. Chance The Rapper]”