Childish Gambino needs you to know that he wants to be taken seriously as a major player in Southern rap’s bustling indie scene. His voice as a rapper often gets smothered by his work as a comic — under his government name, Donald Glover — but he pines for acceptance in his adopted craft, particularly seeking recognition as a member of Atlanta’s inner circle. “I had a dream I ran Atlanta,” he mumbles in the opening moments of his latest mixtape, STN MTN, and it’s clear he feels like the odd duck out when critics start counting the notable rappers from the region. The rest of his dream centers around what he’d do if he did run The A — namedropping the city’s locales, presumably to prove he’s a native — and he rambles on before settling upon what is apparently the integral piece to this fictitious Gambino utopia: “…I’d have my own Gangsta Grillz mixtape.”
He has one now, and he takes the opportunity to pack it full of every conceivable Atlanta staple in an effort to show just how local he is: STN MTN is Gambino’s attempt to paint himself into the picture he feels left out of. DJ Drama narrates as Gambino spends 40 minutes trying to validate his Georgia heritage, but it doesn’t translate. Instead, it comes across as a desperate struggle to claim unwarranted territorial rights. He oversells it. It’s like if Riff Raff did an entire mixtape covering UGK, Z-Ro and Scarface. It’s impossible to get more forcibly Southern than this.
Most moments in STN MTN reek of posing. There’s a song named after Candler Road. There’s a skit that aggrandizes the absurdity of radio promotions for a real Atlanta nightclub. There’s a serviceable cover of Usher’s “U Don’t Have to Call.” He raps over an old Ludacris beat (“Southern Hospitality”) and a new(er) Ludacris beat (“Patna Dem”) in a four-minute span. He tackles Future’s “Move That Dope,” K Camp’s “Money Baby” and Maceo’s “Nextel Chirp.” He even enlists help from trap fixtures Young Scooter and Zaytoven to sell his credibility. Nearly every nook and cranny gets stuffed with regional subtext, but a lot of it ends up coming off like a weird pantomime.
It’s kind of ironic that the best songs on the tape are the ones that feel most genuine, and that those songs are the ones that sound least like anything out of Atlanta. Gambino tries his hand at a singsong flow over original Nick Banga production with a booming 808 bass on “Fucks Given.” It’s probably the highlight, showcasing his underrated singing voice. He raps proficiently over Timbaland & Magoo’s “All Y’all,” and seems right at home over the unorthodox Celtic flute sample. He finds his best when comfortable, and he’s most comfortable doing what he knows. Perhaps the moral is not to try so hard.