Childish Gambino's "Camp": Sometimes Cringeworthy But Always Important
November 15, 2011 is synonymous with one album, and one album alone — Drake’s Take Care — but there was another release from an actor-turned-rapper that caught the attention of hip-hop’s softer side.
Childish Gambino’s Camp, also released on November 15, 2011, turns ten years old today.
And while the project received overwhelmingly negative reviews from publications including the vaunted Pitchfork, which rated Gambino’s debut studio album a paltry 1.6, Camp takes on an entirely new meaning within the context of the decade that followed its release.
Before Camp, the man behind the Wu-Tang-Name-Generated, mafioso moniker, aka Donald Glover, was a television wunderkind.
Frazer Harrison/Getty ImagesLanding as a writer on NBC’s 30 Rock by the age of 23, and a lead role in the network’s comedy series, Community, by the age of 25, Glover was well on his way to becoming the next great pillar of American television. But that wasn’t enough. During his time as a writer for the Tina Fey-created sitcom and as Community’s Troy Barnes, Glover independently released a handful of mixtapes, dropped thirty minutes of stand-up comedy for Comedy Special Presents in 2010, and came back with an hour-long special, Weirdo, two years later in 2012.
Adding the titles rapper and stand-up comedian to his already-impressive television resumé, it was clear that Glover was a force to be reckoned with, but it was unclear exactly which direction he would go next.
Camp provided that clarity. But where Glover’s Community character transformed from the star high school quarterback into a nerdier, more-wholesome version of himself, Childish Gambino used Camp to do the exact opposite.
Camp is a 56-minute, featureless therapy appointment. From the record’s first track to its last, we are repeatedly presented with the musings of a man who was widely rejected in high school and is determined to use his newfound success to make up for lost time.
Kevin Winter/Getty ImagesEvery song on Camp references the same things, and while Gambino and Community composer Ludwig Göransson provide a pleasant sonic variety, each of the 13 tracks conveys nearly the same message. Between nearly-constant commentary about the women who brushed him off him in a previous life, and the rap game’s supposed inability to accept a short shorts-wearing rapper in 2011, Childish Gambino painted a picture of an outsider that, in challenging the status quo, had somehow ascended to a higher plane, and was just too smart and too funny to ever fit in. The album is full of self-deprecation, but with every attempt to knock himself down a peg, the Culdesac rapper transformed his insecurities into sources of extreme confidence.
Confidence, and overconfidence, are foundational building blocks of rap music and hip-hop as a whole. It comes effortlessly to the Jay-Z’s of the world, but on Camp, it feels manufactured. Even in moments where Childish Gambino fully hit his stride, showing off his comedic chops and prowess as a rapper with clever flows and witty wordplay, there is always an undermining lyric or questionable joke waiting right around the corner. Throughout the album, Gambino raps about his “real life,” and accuses the rap game of not accepting him because that “realness” isn’t “real” enough. He acknowledges his status as a nerd, and a weirdo, but also goes out of his way to make sure that listeners know he was stacking money and was surrounded by women, seemingly attempting to justify his place as a “real” rapper.
Childish Gambino’s fixation with women on Camp wasn’t new to hip-hop, but his approach to women was more like a tech-bro who made some money, and less like Future. Woven between countless references to women who never paid him any attention and endless mentions of his particular affinity for Asian women, are direct acknowledgments of his need to exercise his emotional demons on people who have nothing to do with them in the first place. On “Kids,” a track dedicated to the fact that he was “fuckin’ now,” Gambino raps, “The chips are up and on my shoulder, you heard me? I take it out on girls that don’t even deserve it.” On “Fire Fly,” he raps “This rap stuff is magic,” and follows it up on “All The Shine,” with “You with a different girl like each and every fucking night, and kiss her while she’s sleeping and sneak out the front to catch a flight // That’s not life, dude, it’s just making up for fucks I missed in high school.”
While Camp sounds more like a scorned 20-something working through everything that had ever hurt him than an upcoming rapper trying to hone his craft, one moment at the end of the record explains much of the album, and helps contextualize itself amongst everything that came before it, and the decade that has passed since. “That Power” is the most poignant song on Camp. Not because of any bars or a beat that cuts through to your heart, but because of the final anecdote Childish Gambino leaves us with.
Recounting his time on a bus trip returning from a sleepaway camp when he was an adolescent, Gambino tells the story of finding the courage to tell a girl he “more-than-likes” her, and how she didn’t reject him directly, but rather told everyone else on the bus and let embarrassment crush him alive. While the story itself serves as a possible explanation for the erratic and less-than-empathetic treatment of women throughout Camp, the impact of the embarrassment is what created the entertainer that lives between Childish Gambino and Donald Glover.
“This isn't a story about how girls are evil or how love is bad. This is a story about how I learned something, and I'm not saying this thing is true or not, I'm just saying it's what I learned,” he said, over the last of the “That Power” instrumental. “I told you something. It was just for you and you told everybody. So I learned to cut out the middle man, make it all for everybody, always. Everybody can't turn around and tell everybody, everybody already knows, I told them.”
This is the essence of Camp, and this is the evolution of Childish Gambino.
Where 30 Rock and Community were legitimate platforms, they were middlemen. They didn’t allow Glover to “make it all for everybody.” Music allowed that. Music removed the filter that is network television. Childish Gambino revealed all of the things Donald Glover couldn’t, and that process has continued ever since. After releasing Because The Internet in 2013 and STN MTN/Kauai in 2014, the “3005” rapper was increasingly accepted into hip-hop. Between a handful of viral freestyles and rumblings of a collaborative project with Chance the Rapper, Gambino was achieving everything he said he couldn’t on Camp, but as his place in rap was solidifying, he took a hard left.
2016’s Awaken, My Love was the modern equivalent of a 70s funk record. On 2020’s 3.15.2020, he took the remaining remnants of that funk and smashed them together with elements of hip-hop and electronic music, and moved even further down a path only he can travel. And throughout the first two seasons of his Emmy Award-winning FX series, Atlanta, Glover tackles the issues and nuances of being Black in America, breaking into the music industry and making it as a late-20s/early-30s creative with big dreams and a small bank account.
Within each new endeavor hides two common threads from every project before it. The first is Glover’s endless desire to express himself exactly how he pleases — without a middle man. The second is his need to be recognized for that expression. As Glover’s career has progressed, his artistic reputation has followed in lockstep. Because The Internet was nominated for Best Rap Album at the 2015 Grammys. Awaken, My Love was nominated for Album of the Year in 2018 and its single, “Redbone” won the award for Best Traditional R&B Performance. Atlanta, Glover’s crown jewel, has won five Emmys and cemented his status as a creative genius.
But Camp came before all that.
Camp was the world’s introduction to Childish Gambino. It was the world’s introduction to the many insecurities of Donald Glover. Where Troy Barnes was a beloved television character, and Glover, the stand-up comedian, was great at getting a laugh, Childish Gambino was vulnerable. And despite expressing that vulnerability in a sometimes-garish manner, Camp was Glover moving out of everybody else’s spotlight, and into his own.