Unlike Donald Glover’s past and current shows, his stand-up specials, cult classic feature, sketch videos, and blockbuster cameos, his rap alter-ego Childish Gambino is not meant to funny. Gambino’s new record, Camp, is an outlet for all the thoughts and feelings that only get hinted at in the quadruple threat’s stand-up. These include growing up poor, being bullied, feeling misunderstood, and generally not having a place. In other words: serious shit. That didn’t stop Glover from penning some zingers that both lighten the mood and give his comedy fans something to hold on to as he rises to the top of a whole new set of charts.
“Still hungry, black Kobayashi”
This lyric comes from the funniest song Gambino will perform live all over the country this spring. It’s called “You See Me” and, at his sold out Club Nokia performance the Saturday before the record’s release, every kid knew every word. That meant that each time Glover ran the hook (“I’m on my ballin’ each and every day/ Asian girls everywhere…), 2,300 fans screamed “U-C-L-A.” Maybe you had to be there, maybe you have to hear the record to understand the comical depth of Glover’s Asian obsession, or maybe this song is actually hilarious.
“Shout out to my Blerds”
“Bonfire” is one of those songs that’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it earns wry smiles for it’s lyrical dexterity. On the first verse alone Gambino nods to Toe Jam and Earl, Odd Future, Invater Zim, PETA, Band of Outsiders, Jollibee and Kogi beef (which represent polar opposites of the LA foodie scene), and of course a reference to an ultimate “blerd”: Turk from Scrubs. This track is about as referentially dense as anything off of Das Racist’s Relax, which is a disc-length maelstrom of dada punchlines dry as the residue of Mitch Hedberg’s cosmic being smoking peyote in the Serengeti. Like it or not, Relax is the funniest rap record of the year.
“I got a girl on my arm dude show respect/ something crazy and Asian: Virginia Tech”
Too soon? For some, the answer is likely “uh, yes.” Others will make their best “oh shit” face. Others still will make a sound between coughing and laughing. If Camp primarily functions as a personal odyssey letting fans new and old experience another side of Glover’s person, this lyric is the most confrontational moment. It’s the point where the comedian shows up to the party uninvited, knocks over the keg, sets the curtains on fire, then leaves with the hottest girl in the room. It’s from a song called “Backpackers,” which reminds me that the album’s dedication to summer camp as a complex conceit for growing up is weird-funny.
“Seen it all like John Mayer’s penis hole”
Runners-up funniest lyrics from “Sunrise” include referring to himself as “Black Rock like a Lost Episode” and describing “fly Rihanna girls drinking my coconut water.” I realize a lot of this shit is only funny to me. For example, any reference to Lost just reminds me of the obsessively comprehensive drinking game I played during season four, where a half-dozen of my friends would write down one rule for each episode each week. We kept a comprehensive list and, for the finale, we played every rule we thought of throughout the season at once. I don’t know about Black Rock, but I surely blacked out.
The other reason I find some of these lines funny is because of the analysis other’s offer through one of my favorite websites: Rap Genius. Here’s what one user writes about the Rihanna line (which references an advertisement for Vita Coco on the side of a tall building in Hollywood so big you can see from my house, which is like five miles away): “Referencing this Vita Coco ad featuring Rihanna, and that hot girls drink his coconut water, but Gambino’s coco water cums from different kind of nuts.” Shout out to RG. You crazy for this one!
“You’s a fake fuck like a fleshlight.”
This comes from “Firefly,” which is a song I genuinely love and makes the best case for Glover adding “famous pop star in the vein of B.O.B.” to his cluttered resume. Again, I think this line is funny for personal reasons. That’s unfair to everyone else, who, in the event you’re chronically disinterested, I will go ahead and redirect to Kurp’s hypnotic 58 Reasons to Love Community. For the rest, a personal tale.
In 2006 I was touring the country in a rock band that I won’t even hyperlink to, not because we were bad or I’m ashamed, but because I’m lazy and I can’t imagine what crumbling remnants of our web presence might remain. We opened for metal bands in St. Louis, MO. We were loud and destructive, but not metal, not that club bookers cared enough to make a distinction. A few metalhead girlfriends would sign our mailing list at the end of the show.
One girl in St. Louis seemed nice enough and introduced us to her guy friend, who invited us to stay at his apartment. The space was untenable, even by the standards of three guys who slept in their van the night before. He had no bedding, stains and garbage on the floor, no food, and some drugs. We heard gunshots and sirens outside in the direction of our van, gear, and livelihood. We weren’t sure what to do, but we knew we couldn’t do anything until the police and medics down the block had some time to deal with the situation. While waiting, the unworthy host unboxed his own personal Fleshlight. “I can clean it if you want,” he offered.
Homicide be damned, we up and left. We were appalled, but forever armed with the limitless artillery of an inside joke we’ll take to our graves.
“I know Donald Glover, he weak man, he campy”
I’m fresh out of chuckle worthy lyrics, so I’ll close with a point. Glover’s smart. He knows some will expect jokes and others will leave Gambino alone when they find out there aren’t many. The above lyric follows the most self-aware, non-rhyming couplet on the record: “You got a mixtape? That’s fantastic/ But everybody thought it was jokes, though.” He’s aware of our expectations, but committed to this other mode of communication.
To which I want to make an honest argument against pigeonholing an artist with abilities diverse as Glover’s. He’s clearly resonating with a generation of fans that isn’t solely interested in his comedy career; he sold 63,000 copies of Camp in its first week, settling in as the sixth highest selling album in the country. Everything else in the top ten already established as a household name.
If rapping about serious issues with heart gets Glover to that level, I’m going to be cheering along with the teens in the floor seats. His career could use a little gravitas, so the next time they’re casting a lower middle class super hero from Queens, there’s less debate.
Aaron is a writer living in Los Angeles.