“I am afraid people hate who I really am. I am afraid I hate who I really am.” These are a couple of the many lines, written in all capital letters on hotel paper, that Donald Glover (aka rapper Childish Gambino) posted recently on Instagram. These notes went up right before Because the Internet, his second album, was released. It isn’t the first time a rapper has laid his vulnerability on display: Kanye West, Drake and others have similarly challenged our views of hip-hop manhood. Some people can’t handle it — witness the explosion of Drake Be Like memes. But the act of stepping out of the performance of masculinity in rap is important. There’s courage in it.
Childish Gambino’s vulnerability isn’t as well executed as Drake’s, but it’s important nonetheless, and on Because the Internet, he tries to balance his confessionals with the comedic bars he became known for on its predecessor, Camp. On “Sweatpants” he raps, “Silver spoon coon, ho, ain’t nobody sicker/ And my Fisker vroom vroom ho,” before calmly reassuring us “Fiskers don’t make noise when they start, just so you know.” It’s the only moment on the album even worth half a snicker. Most of the other attempts fall flat. And Eve didn’t bite the apple for Glover to refer to a vagina as a “vaj” — that’s not OK, even if it does rhyme.
His use of features also comes across as misguided or lackluster; “The Worst Guys” features Chance the Rapper, and while the song is otherwise a standout, it’s missing the things we love most about Chance — namely, his weird rapping voice and signature adlibs. Instead, we get him repeating the line “all she needed was some” over and over. Gambino fails similarly with Azealia Banks on “Earth: the Oldest Computer.” The production has a thumping bass line that recalls Zebra Katz’s “I’ma Read,” and it falls in the realm of the vogue-inspired beats that Banks has made a semi-career rapping over. Yet she only sings, bringing none of her flair and personality to the song. It would’ve benefitted Gambino to put some of the songs on the chopping block, but the album is cohesive, and the production is good enough to suggest that it could have been a damn good instrumental album.
Glover’s real talent lies in communicating his insecurity. From the evidence of the album, as well as the interactive screenplay that coincides with its release, as well as those Instagram letters, he’s at a weird point in his life. He’s much older than his Community character Troy, and he wants to escape him. Underneath the half-convincingly delivered comedy raps is a man who wants to breathe a little, be taken seriously, and venture out into other areas. “Because the Internet, everything is forever,” he laments. On “Life: The Biggest Troll,” he asks “I mean where’s the line between Donnie G & Gambino?”
Everything might be “forever” on the Internet, but Donald is still using it as a confessional. Because the Internet is many things, but at its best it’s an archive, preserving a headspace at a specific time in Donald’s life.