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Mixtape Review: Childish Gambino's "Royalty"

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Royalty - Childish Gambino

The more things change, the more Childish Gambino's commitments to Asian women and pop-culture references stay the same. The style wrapped around those CG mainstays is evolving for the better, though. For a successful comic cat who's decided to fight for rap legitimacy, Royalty is a pretty sure-footed step in the right direction. Gambino's determined to talk about his roots despite his present success, and to employ a style that some find incongruous with his hipster TV writer persona. If you think he's being tongue in cheek when he injects street swagger into his lyrics and delivery, this tape won't change your mind outright but it might induce you to take a second look.

Partly that's because of the supporting cast. "Star-studded" is an understatement here, and Glover probably hopes the likes of Bun B, Ghostface, Beck and Danny Brown will convince doubters of his legitimacy. But ultimately it's up to you to decide if Gambino's efforts to balance nerdy punchlines, hoodish braggadocio, and introspection are successful. It's a bit uneven, but Royalty is a far more consistent piece of work than last year's Camp. CG's ability to throw multiple cadences and a variety of rhyme schemes behind his punchlines has brought him the opportunity to build a real rap career, and it's clear that he's doing his best to seize it.

"We Ain't Them" **
Gambino often hints at the tension between where he comes from, where he wants to go, and the indie comedy career he's had in the middle, but this song (which he released to the web a little while back) tackles the matter squarely. Over a chill-ass beat that should come with its own kush, he talks about his family's doubts about his career choices, and suddenly having access to people like Questlove both onstage and in conversation. He wants to be taken seriously as a rapper, to be less a punchline factory and more of a lyricist. This track stands out, mostly for its open-ended writing and contemplative vibe.

"One Up" (f. Steve G. Lover)
Childish got legends like Bun B, GFK, and Beck on this tape, but the first feature goes to his brother Stephen. CG provides the spare, minor-key beat full of hi-hat for he and his little bro to flex on. Nothing groundbreaking, but both emcees toss out some clever, street-styled nerdy rhymes. More of a stage-setter for the rest of the tape than a stand-out track.

"Black Faces" (f. Nipsey Hussle)
If "League of my own, swag Geena Davis" doesn't make you chuckle and listen harder, you're listening to the wrong man's tape. But again, this ain't the All Punchlines Everything style Gambino broke out with, and he's not just swinging his dick around either. He's talking about black prosperity, both his own and in the abstract, and Nipsey's opening verse sets him up nicely.

"Unnecessary" (f. ScHoolboy Q & Ab-Soul) **
This track popped up on blogs a few weeks back, so if you're doting on these things you've heard it -- and you know that Gambino still can't really write interesting hooks, but, more importantly, you know that he and ScHoolboy Q sound fantastic alongside each other. Their different vocal tones and flows complement each other well. The track takes a sonic right turn for Ab-Soul's fiery closing verse.

"Shoulda Known"
The first sighting of Gambino-as-Crooner! He doesn't overdo it, and blends the singing into his verses well. Lyrically, "Shoulda Known" is a bit of a hodgepodge, and will fuel the haters who think he's self-obsessed (and somehow don't care that so is, I dunno, every rapper ever).

"RIP" (f. Bun B) *
For everyone who rejects Gambino's evolving persona, and stated determination to talk about his childhood and background even though he's seen as a hipster comic and hypemachine, take a second to reflect on this. Bun B -- Bun Motherfuckin' B! -- is on this tape. His presence is a tacit endorsement of Gambino as a rapper rather than a comedy act, and he takes a gentle crack at Internet obsessives that also implies that he's on Team Childish here. Oh, and the beat is CG ripping up that catchy-ass song from Drive, so there's that.

"American Royalty" (f. RZA & Hypnotic Brass Ensemble) *
RZA puts his back into it here, but when Childish comes in the disparity in their mic skills is unmistakable. RZA is lyrically intricate, but where his verse requires some study to decipher, Gambino's wordplay is more intuitive. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble provide the most original sound on the tape, and musically the track stands out from its electronic surroundings.

"It May Be Glamour Life" (f. Ghostface Killah)
The shortest song on the tape doesn't have a Childish verse, and coming right after the RZA feature it sort of knocks Gambino back into place. He might be better on the mic than one Wu legend, but he's still looking uphill at GFK (like almost everyone else).

"Toxic"(f. Danny Brown) **
This joint is a problem. skywlkr took the strings and one Britney vocal from "Toxic" and twisted 'em around and the results are irresistible. Danny Brown dials the swag to 11 and Childish does his best to keep up. Easily the best song on the tape. Also has CG either big-upping Chief Keef or clowning his simple lyrics, depending on how you interpret this line.

Silk Pillow (f. Beck)
"Silk Pillow" also hit the blogwaves some weeks back, and Beck's presence helped ramp up interest in Royalty at the time. Beck's rap-mode voice sounds eerily close to Sage Francis, and the track he and Gambino co-produced sounds like Dan the Automator and Li'l John walked into a teleporter at the same time and got their DNA all twisted up in transit.

"They Don't Like Me" (f. Chance the Rapper)
The repetitive sing-song flow Chance the Rapper brings to this track doesn't really work. Unless the goal is to annoy the hell out of people. I guess the nice word is "catchy," but the track picks up halfway through his verse when he switches it up. It's also strange that Gambino only drops eight bars on a song whose title seems to promise a manifesto. But it's skywlkr again on the track, so it's not a total miss.

"Arrangement" (f. Gonage) **
One of Gambino's strongest verses on the tape. If he wants to lay claim to a rap lane that balances hipster jokiness with more elaborately clever writing and touches of real life, it's more important to just do so on wax than to proclaim those intentions on Twitter. He does it here.

"Won't Stop" (f. Danielle Haim)
Another semi-soulful joint, but Gambino's at his least compelling when he sings, and even at three minutes it feels twice as long as it should be.

"Bronchitis"
Couple weird moments in his verse here where the whole track just cuts out for half a bar, and it sounds like he went back and edited out some rhymes. Not clear why. It's a ghostly, Beck-produced track behind a long, angry verse about working hard and being misunderstood.

"Wonderful" (f. Josh Osho)
When Gambino songs have good hooks, they're provided by others. Josh Osho sings the hell out of this one, while Gambino gets direct about his upbringing, his family, and the hostility toward others he carries with him.

"Make It Go Right" (f. Kilo Kish)
Gambino borrows from LL Cool J at the beginning of his love-song verse, but Kilo Kish's opening verse probably put you to sleep before you heard it. Hey! Hey, wake up! Listen to his verse! Yeah, no, it's not good, I know, just... I didn't want you to get keyboard imprints on your face. (Note to CG: Don't put the weakest track of your tape second-to-last. And lose KK's number.)

"Real Estate" (f. Alley Boy, Swank, & Tina Fey)
You only get Tina Fey to close your mixtape if you're Childish, and you're completely determined to piss on anybody who thinks you can't have both the careers he's pursuing. How 'bout you, you feel pissed on?