Monthly Archives: November 2013

Dr. Glover, Mr. Gambino: A Confessional Rapper’s Struggle with Racial Identity

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I caught wind of Childish Gambino before ever hearing mention of this Donald McKinley Glover fellow.  Most people know Glover from his portrayal of Troy Barnes on NBC’s Community, or perhaps from his work as a stand-up comedian. Me?  I didn’t hear of him until he stepped into the rap scene.  I’m not a big fan of television shows, but when someone starts spitting similes over sped up Adele, they really know how to perk my ears.  As if Adele was chanting the perfect caveat in the second chorus of “Rolling in the Deep”: “You’re gonna wish you/never had met me…”  before this corny monster calling himself Childish Gambino jumps in to rap one verse before the song is nearly over.   Punch lines like “‘I’m saying that my life’s swell: cortisone,” matched with painfully honest bitterness: “Wow, girl, that’s what you really wanted, huh?/A Michael Cera knockoff, I guess I wasn’t white enough.”  

Yes, Childish Gambino, I kind of wish we had never met. But what initially felt corny and insincere has evolved into a compelling, complex character in hip-hop; Gambino has a lot to say about racial performance and black identity, even if we have to swim through corny punch lines to find said message.  Rapping seemed like a hobby for Glover at first.  But now, Glover has moved from actor-who-occasionally-raps to the next rapper-who-abandoned-acting, as if he needed anything else to draw comparisons to Drake.  He has taken a reduced role in Community, and is set to release his second studio album Because the Internet on December 10th

Donald Glover never really quit acting, though.  His alias, derived from a computer engine that generates Wu-Tang-esque titles from real names, was only the beginning of Glover’s rapping persona.  Childish Gambino is a corny, sensitive, aggressive misogynist, who makes you question when he’s being sincere, when he’s actually pissed off, when he’s pulling your leg, and if he really ever walks around the club surrounded by Asian models.  He’s mastered this jeckle and hyde see-saw character who often reflects on his own authenticity as a rapper, role model, and black man.

Gambino’s first LP, 2011’s Camp, was best known for “Bonfire,” an appropriately named single that strings together clever tangential similes that tells the hackneyed rapper tale of being rich, popular, disrespected, and surrounded by naked women:

Move white girls like there’s coke up my asscrack

Move black girls cause, man, fuck it, I’ll do either

I love pussy, I love bitches, dude, I should be runnin’ PETA

From the single and what I’d heard prior to Camp, I was convinced he was a wittier, more privileged version of Lil Wayne.  Albeit entertaining, this side of Gambino was a mere snippet of his persona’s complexity.  Several of his tracks on Camp portray compelling confessions from a rapper who has suffered through childhood bullying and relationship troubles, all stemming from issues with his racial identity.

On “Backpackers,” Gambino rants about his lack of “street cred” because he’s often considered “that well spoken token,” the nerdy black guy who is too nerdy to align with mainstream America’s image of the black rapper:

Nerdy ass black kid, whatever man I’m sick of him

That well spoken token, who ain’t been heard

The only white rapper who’s allowed to say the N-word

I buy a bunch of ’em and put it on my black card

Now I got some street cred, use it ’til it’s maxed out

He’s “the only white rapper who’s allowed to say the N-word,” passing as a white man but still grasping to his black roots to brag that he can, in fact, say “the N-word” without offending anyone.  The black card pun is equally gripping, conceptualizing the literal purchase of black identity, or “street cred,” through using the word nigger.   

On “Hold You Down,” Gambino dives further into his personal issues with racial identity.  At the end of the first verse, he raps:

But niggas got me feelin’ I ain’t black enough to go to church

Culture shock at barber shops cause I ain’t hood enough

We all look the same to the cops, ain’t that good enough?

The black experience is Black and serious

Cause being black, my experience, is no one hearin’ us

White kids get to wear whatever hat they want

When it comes to black kids one size fits all

The idea that many black youth suffer from both black and white oppression is troublingly real.  If a kid isn’t “black enough,” they’re forced out of the black community while still suffering through the inevitable struggles of racial profiling and white supremacy.  They can pass as neither white nor black, thus facing maltreatment from both sides.  White youth can pass as black as much as they please without ever facing the anguish of racism, but for black kids, “one size fits all.”

So before you criticize for Glover for being a misogynist, or inauthentic, or inconsistent, perhaps give some more thought to why he’s performing as such, and what that means about our societal ideas of what it means to be accepted by the white or black community.  The multiplicity of Gambino’s persona: his lyrical confessions, questionable sincerity, and braggadocios punch lines are all product of a man who felt the need to play these roles to gain acceptance. 

Perhaps we should consider Gambino a confessional poet of hip-hop.  When the bonfire goes out, when he stops playing the persona of the demonized black pimp, he has very gripping points to make on racial identity and the black experience. And when he does decide to perform as this iron jawed sex king, can we view that as a very telling performance of a black rapper?  As insincere as this corny demon sounds, it’s a very honest portrayal of how mainstream America views rappers. The money and women and outrageous behavior Gambino needs to brag about to gain authenticity in hip-hop, it’s all part of his struggle with racial identity.  Glover has passed between the lines of white and black for his whole life, and Childish Gambino is the main stage materialization of that duality. 

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Review: Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP2

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I was ten years old when Eminem stuck his middle finger up to the world with The Marshall Mathers LP.  To people who said he could never make it in hip-hop because he was white.  To naysayers who called him a never-will-amount-to-anything piece of white trash.  To his absent dad, his child’s mother, his English teacher, and his dope-head mom.  He didn’t give a fuck, God sent him to piss the world off.

And here we are, 13 years later.  Eminem is eight albums deep in his career.  He’s experienced inconceivable success, scandals, law suits, drug issues, recovery and finally, a full circle return in the form of The Marshall Mathers LP2. 

And me?  Well, Em and I have sort of lost touch.  I admired him for not giving a fuck.  I loved the way his witty lyricism hopped jumped and skipped through this maze of beats.  How he challenged himself at every turn.  How fast can I flow on this beat?  How much can I offend mainstream America?  Like he got off on the image of mothers covering their sons ears, begging him to stop bragging about slitting faggots’ throats and raping women.  His subject matter thrilled me.  Like the thought of running away for a night just to see how my parents reacted.  Or saying a swear word in sixth grade social studies to get a gasp out of the girl next to me.

But I’m twenty-three now, and honestly,  MMLP2 doesn’t really do it for me. Sure, Eminem exercises his renowned lyrical abilities.  He can spit as fast as Twista, tell graphic tales, and make hilarious allusions to current events all in one verse. But thirteen years later,  I no longer get a thrill from hearing about women being drowned and violently fucked, and frankly, It’s hard not to cringe from the image of my childhood idol breaking a table “over a couple of faggots backs.”

Now–before I get slim-shady’s fan group all riled up into thinking I’m some oblivious, easily offended critic—I get the whole alter-ego thing.  I understand that Eminem doesn’t actually believe all these things.  That slim shady is his evil rapping twin persona that was born to see how easily he could offend sensitive ears.  That Eminem actually supports gay rights, probably respects women, and has done his best to raise his daughter to believe the same.  I get it.  I just think the act is exhausted, and find myself asking: why?

Why is Eminem so angry? He’s not the same twenty-seven-year-old who had something to prove.  He’s a successful rap icon, self-proclaimed rap god who has earned a spot on most everyone’s list of top-ten MC’s alive.  Why does he find it necessary to rekindle the flame he sparked at the beginning of his career, revisiting the same subject matter, hunger, and angry-menace attitude? The very persona that earned my respect as a young fan of hip-hop has me at a loss, wondering why a forty-one year old mogul hasn’t really changed at all.  What was once an impermeable confidence now comes off as a desperate desire to prove that this middle-aged man still has his old tricks.

When I think of Eminem’s peers, rap icons like Jay-Z and Kanye, they’ve matured in ways we couldn’t have perceived at the start of their careers.  They’ve grown into icons who have learned how to revisit their past with more reminiscence than full-fledged embodiment.  Who can brag about how far they’ve come and how much they’ve learned with a newfound maturity, and a worldly awareness of what they represent in the world hip-hop.

The intro to “Rap God” really says it all.  We hear a comic book, Wu-Tang-esque voice : “Look, I was gonna go easy on you and not to hurt your feelings, But I’m only going to get this one chance.”  As if this is Slim-Shady’s only chance to prove something to the world.  Prove what?  That he can still portray this misogynist, homophobic persona?  That if he doesn’t do that, he’s going easy on us? Eminem hasn’t hurt my feelings, he’s just left me disenchanted by his range of material.  In thirteen years, he hasn’t found a way to prove his dominance in the rap game without bragging about sexuality dominating women?

He begins to acknowledge this lack of progress in “Asshole.”  In the last verse, he spits:

Only women that I love are my daughters

And sometimes I rhyme and it sounds

Like I forget I’m a father, and I push it farther

So father forgive me if I forget to draw the line

It’s apparent I shouldn’t of been a parent I’ll never grow up

 Eminem embraces some self-deprecation here, revisiting the self-criticism that has always added an admirable complexity to his music.  But at this point in his career, the wheels have fallen off.  Slim’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that made him so appealing in his early work feels different now.  Like he’s trying too hard to be careless.

I’ll still spin “Till I Collapse” on my heavy rotation and hell, I think MMLP2 has some great lines, killer flows, and stadium beats.  I still think that Eminem is a hilarious, complex rap icon who has filled a necessary hole in hip-hop.  His ability to paint horrifying pictures and embody a range of characters is unmatchable. It’s easy to see how his music has inspired a new generation of rappers–Odd Future, Kendrick Lamar, and Yelawolf to name a few.   Perhaps that’s why, as much as it pains me, I’m being so critical of my childhood icon.  Because, thirteen years later, I expected more from a rapper who is fully capable of doing so.

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