Last night, as I tossed and turned while trying to fall asleep, I thought of the music I was going to listen to in the morning. I immediately settled on two artists and albums that I've loved for a long time, and I knew that when I woke up, I needed to re-experience them. They're both six or seven years old, and I haven't played the projects as a whole in a while.
One of them was Nicki Minaj's 'Pink Friday' (2010), and the other one was Childish Gambino's 'Camp' (2011). I'm sorry Nicki, but priority is being given to the latter at the moment.
Childish Gambino's debut commercial album was released 6 years ago. Why am I still talking about it?
Note: I'm going to use Donald Glover and Childish Gambino interchangeably here because they are, in fact, the same person.
'Camp' is explicit. 'Camp' is not a chart topper.
But it is vulnerable, it's honest, and it's filled with some of my favorite rhymes; wordplay that will make you laugh out loud and shudder with horror in the same breath.
'Camp', in short, is glorious.
When Gambino dropped the album in November 2011, I was a freshman at Sherwood High School. I was nerdy, into comedy, loved hip-hop, obsessed with words, and a little emotionally sensitive. In short, I could identify with Donald Glover's album.
Glover explores these themes on the 'Camp'. He's honest and introspective, and the record shows Gambino's deftness -- it just barely scratches the surface of what's to come, but it's clear at this point that he's a modern day Renaissance man. There's a tension within the album that emphasizes his multifaceted humanity. He released a stand up comedy special, he has lots of feelings and is very vocally nerdy. But that doesn't mean he can't destroy you with a single bar.
Almost all of 'Camp' is concerned with Gambino's identity. His abilities, his interests -- where do they fit in with the larger world? The narrative also surrounds what it means to be Black in America, especially for someone who doesn't fit well with norms and cultural expectations.
On Fire Fly, Gambino raps "No live shows cause I can't find sponsors/for the only Black kid at a Sufjan concert."
This recorded exploration of identity was potent for me; the quest to find one's place in a larger society or group was a question frequently present in my consciousness when the album dropped.
As a freshman at Sherwood High, I didn't really have a close friend group, and I navigated several sports teams without ever fully fitting into them. I was multifaceted in a way that early high school doesn't want you to be; my town wanted me to fit in when all I wanted was to stand out and be my own person. So of course, the album struck a chord. I loved the wittiness with which Glover decimated his enemies (in a way I wished that I could do), and the hurt that accompanied his heartbreak -- it resonated. I admired his ability to be authentic in a world that ordered him to conform.
For those turned off by the explicit lyrics and nasty jokes, it may be uncomfortable to hear that I viewed him as an early role model. I so desperately wanted to be like him. The world was his oyster, as the saying goes, and he was making a damn fine meal out of it. If you understood who I was at the time, though, the fact that Gambino was a prized ideal is not surprising. The role models in my town were the star athletes and the coaches, especially the ones involved with football.
Yes, I loved lacrosse, but that was only a small aspect of identity, and lacrosse was not a sport valued highly in my community at the time. With an essentially absent father figure, who were the male role models to look up to? My community put forward the athletic names; I looked elsewhere.
My relationship with 'Camp' was wonderful! Every time I listened, I discovered new wordplay, I conquered a new meaning that had previously escaped my understanding. The record also has more than a few angst-filled anger songs; perfect for my early high school self. 'Camp' was an escape for me, in a way that the title suggests it's meant to be. It's a retreat from the expectations of society and the pressures of daily life, into a place where you can explore your personal identity and find out what's authentically you.
I didn't rely solely on 'Camp' for this, and of course it wasn't made for me. I'd venture that it was made for Donald Glover, and that the most potent audience for him is one that most clearly reflects his identity: a young Black boy from Stone Mountain who has many diverse dreams and interests, and who doesn't quite fit in.
I do not know what it is like to be Black in America, or what growing up near Atlanta is like. I was a white kid from suburbs of Portland, Oregon, and the album still deeply resonated with me.
That, I think, is a sign of great art. A record that strikes a nerve with people across a variety of completely different experiences. Was the album made for me? Of course not. But sometimes it felt like it.
Why am I still talking about 'Camp'? Certainly not because it's still relevant in our collective pop culture consciousness. And not even because it's a phenomenal album, with simple production, high-pitched revelations and killer lyrics.
I'm still talking about it because it powerfully wove its way into my experience. It's still there, always somewhere in my musical lexicon, patiently waiting for the moment I need to retreat back to 'Camp' again.