A Little Bit Childish: Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet

Because the Internet

Because the Internet. The album is reactive, then – it arises as response. Or maybe, like much of the Internet, it’s just a dull residuum, a reiteration of memes and tired faux insight, a collection of well-tinkered parts freshly tinkered.

I suppose it depends on whether you buy the tinkerer.

Donald Glover doesn’t immediately evoke sympathy. He’s young, famous, and rich, among a number of other traits that don’t necessarily predispose a listener to enjoy a nineteen-track paean to dissatisfaction. Jay-Z may have an appalling amount of money, but at least he has the good taste to sound pleased about it. Glover is pre-positioned to live up to the “Childish” in his pseudonym, and when he does, it’s flagrant:

Got a new girl and she look Mila Kunis?
Infinity pool, and a statue that’s Buddhist?
Got bottles and bottles and bottles of Grino?
Saw I was rich, now they fuckin’ with ‘Bino

…though he’s not pleased by any of this, of course. The hard life.

The heady materialistic excess of ‘90s rap is on its way out (though the cheerful objectification of women remains). The new generation, from J. Cole to Snow Tha Product, seems singularly fascinated with the excess-filled anticlimax of initial success – money and haters and suck-ups, oh my! You can tell a genre is approaching full absorption by the mainstream when wealthy ennui becomes a defining characteristic.

But what about that Buddhist statue?

Yes, the album is about spiritual disconnect… in particular, of course, spiritual disconnect because the Internet. So we get lines like “Common sense, the consequences / Retweet the truth then regret the mentions,” that highlight Glover’s unusual position at the intersection of “legitimate” rap, spirituality, and Internet culture (the first line is in part a play on rappers Common and Consequence, probably). Or maybe the three didn’t intersect at all until now.

If the album aims at the existential, it’s much more effective in its sound than its lyrics. Much of the production, especially in the second half – the album follows the hallucinogenic structure of Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, from normal to jump-off to frenzied peak to cooling introspection – is genuinely haunting, a playful mix of ambient and trip-hop synth with an unpredictable, modulating structure that demands engaged listening.

And that’s the album’s greatest achievement – antithetical, perhaps, to its title, and certainly to its gleeful and frequent appeals to the shallowest of pop culture, Because the Internet is a remarkably uncomfortable listen. That’s the good kind of uncomfortable; you know, art. Whether this is the result of the skillful expression of the inner workings of a troubled mind, or simply of poor album design, though, proves somewhat difficult to decide (that’s the problem with, y’know, art).

Actual, full verses of rap are relatively sparse on the album. Rather than functioning as the central element of the work, the rap feels like a form of instrumentation, sometimes featured, sometimes ancillary. It’s this, in no small part, which keeps the listener on their toes. One’s never sure when a verse will end, and when it does, whether or not it will be satisfyingly concluded. The sudden conclusion of the one-verse track “The Party” is excellent, yanking us out of the reverie of its superficiality; the abrupt end to the first verse of “No Exit” feels more like a plane exploding on its way out of the hangar.

But what about those lyrics?

One’s enjoyment of Because may in part be contingent on their ability to accept ostensibly deep philosophical arguments from an album that also features lines like, “I ain’t fuckin’ with you niggas like apartheid.” Is there a level of willful shallowness that can outright discredit other aspects of a work? Some of Shakespeare’s best may well have been played to the groundlings, but when Glover panders, it often feels arbitrary. One might chalk this up to conflicting models of self-expression – the hyper-masculinity of rap, the sarcastic pithiness of Internet culture, the emotional nihilism of the Family Guy generation’s humour.

It is fun, though. Glover’s flow is confident and engaging throughout the album, and there are definitely lines that pack a punch. Occasionally too funny, occasionally too soulful, occasionally downright cliché (I thought the line “I don’t know who I am anymore,” was long ago abandoned to the realm of the exclusively maudlin, but Glover delivers it straight-faced), Because the Internet is nonetheless appealing. Its inconsistency is maddening, but pleasantly so.

I have a feeling there’s gonna be a Gambino album that knocks our socks off. And while this isn’t quite it, it sure isn’t quite normal…and that’s important too.