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Hip-Hop Zealot: Gambino’s Genius Shines On ‘Because The Internet’

Asst. Arts & Review Editor

Published: Thursday, December 12, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 17, 2013 18:12

Gambino

Courtesy of Island Records


Because the Internet is a record in five acts, following an artist trapped in his celebrity and confronted by the shifting realties of music in a digital world. Georgia rapper Childish Gambino shoots from a tricky angle in this project: Because the Internet is an album that hopes not to be one.

“I don’t want to do albums,” explained the former Community star in an October interview with FUSE. “Especially now, if you put out a body of work, it should be like an experience, because it’s easy to do that now.” Without first considering the man behind the moniker, this claim comes off as pretentious—but in the case of the 30-year-old comedian-turned-rapper, there’s been nothing conventional about approaching hip-hop.

Donald Glover started his career in television—after graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he began writing for NBC’s 30 Rock in 2006, and three years later came to star in the network comedy Community. Glover entered the music industry under the alias Childish Gambino in 2008, with the release of his independent record Sick Boi. He has since become one of the foremost figures in hip-hop, building a career on his 2011 concept album Camp.

Above all, Gambino’s work has been synonymous with his wit.

But the quippy remarks and comic rants that made Gambino iconic are only a small part of Because the Internet, which mostly speaks through cryptic verses, sound clips, and fragmented sound. For most of the record, the rapper comes off as distracted, even disinterested. The first act introduces Gambino’s superstardom, only to transition quickly to a parallel narrative of a loner, obsessed with technology, detached from the world.

Gambino’s project here goes beyond just recordings, with an Internet screenplay and related video segments provided on his website as a companion to the record. The story behind Because the Internet builds more like an existential novel than a hip-hip narrative: the ego is almost entirely absent in Gambino’s verses, and what’s left is the insecurity. Even in “I. The Worst Guys,” a track in act two mimicking the masturbatory verses of anthem rap, Gambino makes a pointed reference to his sexual inadequacy.

Structurally, Because the Internet is redolent of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, and for a good chunk of the record, Gambino works through vocals rather than rap verses, comfortably building melodies into a pseudo-rap dynamic. As his own executive producer, Gambino never commits entirely to clear patterns in his instrumentals, but on this record he closely mirrors the soundscape of Kanye West’s Yeezus, a project Gambino has openly praised.

Because the Internet closely follows recent trends in rap but ultimately refuses to approach the hip-hop industry on the industry’s terms. Its tracks come off a case study of a sort, identifying the patterns in conventional rap and constructing criticisms out of them. It’s an incredibly high-reaching work that often feels a little unexcited, but never uninspired.

It’s difficult to say if Because the Internet succeeds in transcending the album entirely, as it still capitalizes in part on the appeal of albums. Gambino works with Chance the Rapper on “I. The Worst Guys,” and later with Azealia Banks on “II. Earth: The Oldest Computer (The Last Night)”—not surprisingly, these two tracks seem particularly ready for release as singles.

While the record will likely be met with considerable commercial success because of the big names involved, Gambino makes it problematic to market. There’s little cohesion within Because the Internet’s individual tracks, and even less holding the record’s 19 tracks together. Additionally, intensive vocal filters make some of Gambino’s verse indiscernible, and accordingly, many of the rap elements of the record serve more as a texture.

Moments on Because the Internet are the absolute shining of Glover’s genius, and while Camp showed his talent as a rapper, Because the Internet defines him as an alarmingly capable producer. In the fourth act, the album comes to a powerful climax with “II. Zealots of Stockholm (Free Information),” a reverb-heavy, bass-consumed club ballad. The track reworks the terms of hip-hop, placing Glover the producer over Gambino the rapper. The project ends with two similarly powerful pieces: “II. Earth: The Oldest Computer (The Last Night)” and “III. Life: The Biggest Troll (Andrew Auernheimer).”

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