Donald Glover or Childish Gambino? It is hard to know which persona of the actor-turned-rapper is now better known. Gambino, the 28-year-old entertainment prodigy, has funneled his efforts away from writing for 30 Rock and performing stand-up into releasing an EP, a studio-length album entitled Camp and, most recently, his new mixtape, Royalty, which was released on July 4. After all of this, completed incredibly in the last year and a half, Childish Gambino has been the name hyped in every music blog, and, consequently, hip-hop fans around the world.
Royalty diverges greatly from Gambino’s last album, Camp, which dropped only last November. The most striking change is in the number of singers, rappers and producers who collaborate with him in the studio. There are big names from Beck, Ghostface Killah and RZA to rising stars like Kilo Kish and Danny Brown. The question is whether or not Gambino pulls it off — does he bring out the best in all his peers or is the album overwhelmed by the influx of different styles and voices? The answer, I think, is both. For a majority of the songs, the featured artists match Gambino’s style, while bringing something fresh to his tracks. For some, they seem like overshadowing additions.
The album starts with “We Ain’t Them,” a solo Gambino track co-produced with his longtime collaborator, Ludwig Göransson. One of the strongest on the tape, this track includes a catchy beat — his best since hit single “Freaks and Geeks” — and intimate lyrics such as, “My mom, like, why you wanna leave a good job/My dad, like, do your thing, boy, don’t stop.” One of Gambino’s fortes is his ability to write about his personal life in a way that the listener can relate to. Privileged he is, he still falls into the traps of love and life, and these close-to-home confessionals add weight to the proceedings.
Similar lyrics are smattered across his tape. They are proof that Gambino stays uniquely himself despite his collaboration with others. His style stays true to form throughout. Witty political commentary — “People wrestle over petty cash/When we should be really crying over that one percent like we tipped a milk glass,” from the track “Black Faces” — accompany straight-up puns such as, “Please someone cum laude (come laud) me,” and “These rappers doing so-so (sew-sew) like a seamstress.” And of course, he stays true to his proclaimed affinity for Asian females, stating, “Groupies lookin’ like the Yakuza in my Jacuzzi.”
Although Gambino retains his distinct panache, he also manages to aptly accommodate the styles of his collaborators. For example, on the track “Make It Go Right,” Kilo Kish, one of the few female artists featured, raps in a droll, nonchalant manner. Gambino matches this tone and literally echoes her: Kish snaps, “It’s called respect, you ever heard of it?” and Gambino replies, “It’s called regret, you ever heard of it?”
In tracks featuring more seasoned artists, Gambino’s amateur status sticks out. In comparison to raps by Beck and RZA, Gambino fades into the background. In “Silk Pillow,” Beck strings words in a manner much more sensational than literal — his words are elegant and poetic, revealing Gambino’s crudeness in comparison. Wu-Tang Clan member RZA also puts Gambino’s inexperience into perspective, whipping up lyrics like, “This Oxycontin carbon monox and toxic concoction/Collapse your brain cells, the swell from lack of oxygen,” to describe his drug usage.
However, Gambino succeeds in integrating the variety of styles. The Hypnotic Brass Orchestra’s intro to the track “American Royalty” stands out as a clever use of instrumentation, and his remix of Britney Spears’ hit song “Toxic” is the best yet. He keeps his tape light and stays true to his comedic roots, ending his final track, “Real Estate,” with a verse by Tina Fey. If anything, this album is worth listening to, just to hear Fey say the words, “My president is black and my Prius is blue motherf**ker.”