From comedian and actor to internet rap sensation, Donald Glover‘s circle of avid fans and celebrity pals has rapidly expanded since he made the often-precarious transition under his rhyming alter-ego, Childish Gambino. Less than a year since the 30 Rock contributor officially graced the studio for his solid debut album Camp — a project full of zany, oddball humour and self-aware reflection — Gambino returns to the studio to produce Royalty, his most sought-after mixtape to date.
Having established a core following and drawing new fans with every show he storms, Gambino’s latest offering of cartoon-like raps and marquee guest features aims to reaffirm his long-term allegiance to music and ensure that any conceptions of his rapper tag being a gimmick are far from truth. With every verse sounding like an extract from his journal, Gambino’s animated performances and distinct pitch unravel intimate stories of fame, pressure and depressive states.
“We Ain’t Them” traces his daunting journey into the world rap, discussing superstardom, acclaimed rappers as friends, parental advice and more. Gambino’s personified verses of feeling pressured to “go hard” and living up to family expectations adds a human interest element to this track as well as a handful of others carrying the same aura.
Nevertheless, there’s just as much “boasting of the rap life” as there are emotive rhymes. “One Up” embraces a futuristic, bouncy vibe and features his younger brother, Steve G Lover.
Two of the mixtape’s regal cameos particularly personify the project’s title — and both belong to the same legendary group. The Wu-Tang Clan‘s abstract rhymeslayer Ghostface adds a sporadic verse to “It May Be Glamorous,” whilst Wu Chief RZA shares two musical landscapes with Gambino (whose moniker sounds like an homage to the Wu) on the excellent “American Royalty,” where Bobby Digital tackles the rich, orchestral opening before Glover goes wild on the intergalactic second instrumental.
While the verdict is still out on Gambino’s lyrical credibility, the part-time comedian does provide a few memorable deliveries. Pairing up with the UK’s Josh Osho for “Wonderful,” the rapper gives a mature, sombre performance, exploring his mental scrapbook for poignant moments he experienced while growing up. On “Make It Go Right” with Kilo Kish, Gambino pays homage to ’80s rap hits “Teenage Love” (Slick Rick) and “I Need Love” (LL Cool J), with a throwback track in which he expresses his own confusions with a suitor.
It was inevitable that Childish Gambino would bring his comedic side to the musical portfolio, and it’s this attribute that causes Royalty to lose some of its prestige as his wacky, oddball deliveries and suspect lines (about “70 year old Twitter followers” and “Oprah’s roaches”) sometimes come across as cartoonish and grating.
But the merits of Royalty far outweigh the blemishes, as Gambino polishes the splinters found on Camp and returns with an improved project.
Delving into various sides music and comedy — getting dark with TDE boys Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul on “Unnecessary” and even roping in Tina Fey to close the mixtape (fortunately not with a verse) — Gambino fully embraces all of his thoughtful yet comedic and crude abilities on Royalty.
Whilst musical purists may pick at his (at times) wobbly 16s, the solid production from Boi-1da, ’90s experimental pop star Beck and Gambino himself pick up any slack, making Royalty one of the crowning pieces in Donald Glover’s developing rap career.