The recent announcements that Donald Glover would have a far smaller role on Community and that he has signed a development deal to create a show of his own— coupled with his very public, heavily scrutinized Instagram therapy—have built expectations to the point that the release of his second album as Childish Gambino feels like a sink-or-swim moment. The level of anticipation surrounding this release—in certain circles, anyway—and Glover’s outsized personality might make you wonder if Because The Internet can get a fair shake from an audience primed toward scrutiny and disappointment.
What limited Gambino’s early, largely inessential mixtapes—aside from the annoying “Sick Boi” nasal vocal technique—was a lack of variety. Each song seemed to be about how Glover’s difficulties growing up “blerd”—black and nerdy—and bullied resulted in an unshakable, paralyzing insecurity. Scattered among the endless repetition of his “I am just a rapper” mantra were the insistent pronouncements that since he’s found success, Gambino gets plenty of money (“green”) and sex (um, “pink”). While Glover had mostly left behind that insipid vocal tic by the time 2011’s Camp was released, thematically he was in a similar place, which made Childish Gambino seem like little more than Donald Glover’s elaborate revenge fantasy aimed at all those mean people who made his life hell in high school. And his 2012 mixtape, Royalty, suffered from an overflowing roster of guest appearances: There was just no opportunity for Childish Gambino to say much of anything when everyone else was doing so much talking.
Because The Internet finally shows that Donald Glover is serious about his music, and he’s willing to take some chances to make sure that Childish Gambino can grow as an artist. As far as Glover is concerned, this isn’t just a rap album. It’s a full media experience that began when he released his short film “Clapping For The Wrong Reasons,” which is being called a “prelude” to Because The Internet. Then, on the eve of the album’s release, Glover released an accompanying screenplay and visual collage to be played and read while listening to the music, making the whole experience all the more high-concept (and all the more aimed at the millennial and college set, as evidenced by its “winter break” release date). Considering the endeavor, this appears to be a significant growth spurt for Childish, and for the most part, the songs are able to support the weight of this new responsibility.
The tracks are arranged in suites and movements that seem only loosely related; there’s just as much singing on the record as rapping; and very few tracks follow the standard pop-song format as they vary in length, genre, and subject. “Shadows” and “3005” are hook-driven earworms that have a shot at some real radio play. “Urn” has a relaxed vibe and production that recalls late-period Marvin Gaye, and Gambino’s crooning is winning despite his strained falsetto. “Pink Toes” finds him continuing his musical love affair with R&B up-and-comer Jhené Aiko. “Telegraph Ave. (Oakland By Lloyd)” is one of the strongest tracks, with a pensive Gambino contemplating a future in Oakland. “Sweatpants” is a straightforward hip-hop banger. One of the shortest tracks, “The Party,” also boasts one of the album’s best verses, proving that Childish has a pretty decent flow when he chooses to use it, and that track is preceded by a gorgeous piano interlude where partygoers can be heard in the background. Though Gambino may be no closer to climbing out of his identity crisis (“I don’t know who I am anymore”), at least he’s making it less monotonous.
Most of these developments are steps in the right direction, yet there are still areas where Because The Internet falters: It indulges far too often in dubstep tendencies. Chance The Rapper is criminally underused on “The Worst Guys.” The stream-of-consciousness, spoken-word sound collage of “No Exit” is patience-trying. The use of so many contemporary Internet buzzwords (GPOY, troll, free information, tweeting) immediately dates it—even the title itself initially seems like a poor choice. But it eventually becomes clear that Childish sees the Internet as a double-edged sword from which he cannot escape. On the closing track, “Life: The Biggest Troll,” he says it most plainly—“Because the Internet, mistakes are forever”—before the track fades out and the album ends. Yet also “Because the Internet,” anything seems possible, and he’s acknowledging that power. With this Because, Childish Gambino finally seems to be growing up.