When the leak of Childish Gambino’s sophomore record Because the Internet arrived in my inbox last week, I was a little hesitant to open it. Not because I thought I had a porn virus or the Syrian Electronic Army was attacking me, but because I’d followed Glover’s zig-zagging narrative closely over the past six months. First, he announced that he’d be cutting down his time in Community. Then he went pretty quiet on social media, despite dropping his first track in sometime, “Centipede.” Then he released Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, that strangely bizarre 30-minute experimental silent film completely different from any of the silly comedy he was known for (“Troy and Abed in the morning,” anyone?) Then that whole “Instagram photo” thing happened, in which he posted a bunch of handwritten letters in the Renaissance Hotel explaining his own frustrations with media and the internet. Then he dropped some more new music—music that made the few people on the rap internet who actually listened to it say, oh, wow, this is pretty good—and announced Because the Internet’s release, which is today. Then he spoke to Noisey about attempting suicide and taking more drugs in order to be a better rapper. And now, anytime he’s in public, he looks stoned out of his mind, a bit like he’s floating, uncertain of his next move but still carrying a bit of innate, Hollywood-charm. As a critic and a rap fan, it was fascinating to watch his development as an artist. And so when the record did indeed arrive, I was wary of listening because, holy shit, what if I actually like this Childish Gambino record?
The fact that I had this internal discussion—whether or not it was okay for me to like this music—is inherently funny, but what’s more is that it’s indicative of exactly what the Because the Internet is about, how self-aware Glover is, what he is trying to accomplish with Gambino, and what the culture thinks of him.
Oh, and it’s also important to consider that this is a record made by Childish Gambino, who is arguably one of the most automatically hated rappers currently in the game.
Let’s step back for a moment. Why do we—as in, the “music critics and those who care about music criticism”—seem to hate Childish Gambino so much? Donald Glover seems like a nice guy, no doubt. Outside of his rapping, the 30-year-old has had a very successful career as a writer, comedian, and actor. He started writing for 30 Rock at the ripe age of 23, fresh out of college, a gig that ended up winning him awards. He starting acting, getting cast as Troy on Community, a smart, goofy comedy that won the heart of the AV Club set. His stand-up is sharp-witted and quick, full of clever little puns and self-aware jokes, embracing being a weirdo. And until recently, after he decided to go into hibernation while he prepped for his new record’s release, he’d had a charming reputation with the press, notably landing a major profile in the pages of the Village Voice back in 2011, sporting a red American Apparel hoodie on the cover, flashing that million dollar smile, goofily sticking a mannequin's hand down his pants in the photo spread.
In short, for most of his career, he’s had the reputation of someone wholesome and loveable, someone who’d be great for a dinner party with your mom and dad.
Come to think of it—that’s precisely why music critics love to hate this dude. He is not cool, and he does not care. No one who is cool would ever come up with their rap name by sticking “Donald Glover” into that dumbass “Wu-Tang Name Generator” that floated around the internet a few years ago.
Need proof? Let’s start with the Pitchfork review of Camp, his debut record. Giving a pathetic 1.6, Ian Cohen knocked it hard, writing that “Glover isn’t strictly a comedy rapper, but he flows like a comic actor: When he’s trying to be playful, his voice hitches in a pubescent squeak, and when he “goes in,” he’s still delivering one room-clearing punchline after another with earnestness of the most confused Rhymesayers guy ever.” Despite the review being pretty accurate (Camp is by no means a good album), it created a go-to set of opinions for every hip kid who reads Pitchfork, and from then on, everything Childish Gambino produced automatically had the reputation of sucking. Earlier this fall, Glover addressed this—and the fact that he knew that Camp wasn’t very good—in his interview with Noisey. “Pitchfork helped me a lot,” he told Slava Pastuk. “There’s no way I can make something worse than that. It would be impossible. But I’m not worried about them because they’re a brand, and I didn’t fit their brand. If I worked for Pitchfork, I wouldn’t give myself a 9.0 either. They’re a brand; they sell tickets to a show they put on every year. They’re not going to give a 1.6 to someone who can be at their show and sell tickets.”
Despite Glover’s self-awareness and willingness to move on from the past, the fallout is prevalent. Just look at some of the critiques that’ve started to roll in for Because the Internet. In his one and a half star review for Consequence of Sound, Noisey contributor Philip Cosores highlighted one of the record’s lyrics—“spending more on friends than TBS” from “Life: The Biggest Troll (Andrew Auernheimer)”—and shared an anecdote of how he used to work as a bartender and would pretend to have not seen the TV show if male patrons asked or wanted to talk about a random episode (because god forbid dudes like Friends). “I’d probably fake laugh and say “that’s funny” at the end,” Cosores writes. “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.”
That’s it right there. As silly as it sounds, Childish Gambino is not a cool thing to like. It’s easy to hate him before he opens his mouth. Because, come on, right? He wears thick glasses and makes puns. He has a smile that’s better than yours. Even though that Friends line is genuinely pretty funny—if Lil Wayne had said this, we'd all love it, crediting it for being both a clever and complicated line. But it's not Lil Wayne. It's Troy from Community. Nothing about his music has ever felt “real,” for the lack of a better term. He’s soft. He’s emo. He’s a dork. And what’s more, every insult thrown at Drake for his TMI-vibes over the past three years can be taken times about 100 in regards to Gambino.
But, ah, now doesn’t that raise an interesting question? Why are we so okay with Drake and why do we hate Childish Gambino? Why is Drake “cool?” I mean, Drizzy is a guy who has lyrics about passive aggressive text-messaging. But because Drake’s narrative has been crafted such that he’s the golden boy—a “politician masquerading as a rapper,” I wrote earlier this year, claiming that fact is “amazingly punk and groundbreaking”—he gets the pass. Remember when Drake’s album hit in October? The internet rejoiced. We here at Noisey dedicated an entire week to the Canadian actor-turned-rapper—running posts on everything from his hairstyle to what it’s like to listen to Drake for the first time to a day-in-the-life cover story of the rapper focusing on Nothing Was the Same’s release day activites . What’s more is that NWTS will end up on countless year-end lists (if it hasn’t already; shout out to year-end lists that come before the end of the year), and Drake is, right now, one of the biggest rappers in the world—lauded for blurring the lines between hip-hop and pure pop. Taste is obviously subjective, and the argument that you have to like Childish Gambino because you like Drake doesn’t really make sense. But their similarities cannot be denied, and it’s funny to think that suggesting a new Gambino record is actually quality, that this dude actually grew up and figured out how to make some good music might automatically get you a slap in the face from an Important Music Writer.
The fact is—get ready for it—Because the Internet is a good fucking record. The production is gripping, carrying the smoothness of Channel Orange blended with Yeezus-esque bombast. Glover’s flow has improved immensely, working more alongside the beat, versus nasally jumping on top of it. He’s singing much, much more, which plays to his best qualities as a performer. In a certain way, he’s taken the vibe from that Frank Ocean verse from Earl Sweatshirt’s “Sunday” and made a 19-song record out of it—and he’s created an appealing and challenging social commentary to go with it.
Like any successful artist, Glover’s figured out his strengths and weaknesses. He’s stopped doing what’s expected of him, and started doing what makes him happy. He's figured out how to write subtly—many of the gripes of Camp circle on the vile and overt nature of his potentially misogynistic feelings. To get a prime example of his growth in understanding who he is, look at “Telegraph Ave. (“Oakland by Lloyd”),” my favorite song on the record. The cinematic track features a character going for a drive, singing along to the radio, getting lost in a moment. “Foot on the gas, I’m just tryna pass / All the red lights and the stop signs / I’m ready to go,” he sings, wrapping his voice in swirling synths, cruising on his self-deprecating thoughts, doing everything he can to escape whatever has him trapped in his head.
But perhaps what makes Because the Internet so compelling is that this shit gets weird. Looking at the tracklist, the album is divided into different sets of Roman numerals, suggesting that each set is a vignette in the development of its story. Glover even released a screenplay to pair with it, and the development of the record feels like it's slowly spinning in and out of control. The five-song run to end the record, starting with “Zealots of Stockholm (Free Information),” is one of the most bizarre bits of music to hit 2013. There are no hooks; only chaos. It jumps back and forth from Justin Timberlake-like croons to confusingly beautiful production that sounds like someone getting electrocuted to some shit with a flow fired straight out of a cannon. Lyrically, out of nowhere, Glover imagines himself getting assassinated in a Denny’s diner by a gun made with a 3D printer. He paraphrases Kinison. He gets political: “I never understood the hate on a nigga preference / when ever marriage is a same sex marriage / same sex every day—monotonous.” Then, after skitzing around for a few tracks, he ends the wild up and down ride that is Because the Internet with “Life: The Biggest Troll (Andrew Auernheimer),” which showcases his best rapping skills, spitting lines so fast, internally rhyming and flowing faster than your ear can keep up, on par with any other MC out there. It's brilliant, really. Glover makes you stick it out till the end—through all his fucked up imagery and post-modern thinking and weird house-like production and everything else that may annoy you about his rapping—simply to be like, "Oh yeah, fuck you. I can actually rap."
Because the Internet is a concept album that challenges, questioning what the internet exactly is, how it’s affecting us whether we’re as famous as Donald or just your average dad with a smartphone, and what that connectivity is doing to change or alter the way our society thinks. The raps are self-conscious; not pandering. They’re overt; not obnoxious. They’re cheeky; not annoying. This is a guy who’s been living in the spotlight for the past five years—someone who’s openly used the internet and its tools to get famous and make jokes and spread his art—but now he’s seeing the fallout of that, witnessing how staring at a screen for ten hours a day might not be the best way to live your life. Our culture is fleeting. Glover, like the rest of us, is so keenly aware that it’s happening—he’s just trying to hold on. You should shut up the fuck up and listen to him try.
Eric Sundermann is the Managing Editor at Noisey. He’s on Twitter — @ericsundy