Emo Rap All-Stars: On Drake and Donald Glover

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Chris Ryan: One of my favorite scenes in The Departed happens when Leonardo DiCaprio visits Vera Farmiga in her apartment. They do the therapist-and-the-raw-nerve dance for a few minutes while “Comfortably Numb” plays in the background; she talks about moving in with her boyfriend, he listens.

At one point she says, “Your vulnerability is really freaking me out right now. Is it real?” To which he responds “Yeah, I think so.” Then he compliments her for not owning cats. Then he sleeps with her.

Basically, when it comes to Drake, I’m Vera Farmiga.

There is something incredibly seductive about Drake’s music, and not because it sounds like Trey Songz mp3s, smells like scented candles, and feels like bath salts. “I can tell a lie if you ask me my whereabouts. But I might talk that real if you ask me what I care about.” Drake is that guy who you casually ask at a party, “How’s it going?” in no way expecting a genuine answer, probably half-hoping you won’t get one, and then find yourself standing there, locked into what has become an hour-long conversation about regret and love, while everything around, all the other people, all the other voices, the music in the background and the fake bullshit small talk dissolves into white noise. Many rappers talk brands. Drake’s brand is crisis. Take Care is about his own.

For the Toronto MC, as was the case for DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan character, being vulnerable is not exactly the same as being honest. And on his second official (third for real) full-length, Take Care, it has nothing to do with being a nice guy. You might imagine Drake, sitting in front of crackling fire wearing an owl sweater, but make no mistake, this guy is a fucking assassin. I wouldn’t wish him on my worst enemy’s sister.

Drake has openly talked about his affinity for battle rappers like Hollow Da Don, it’s just that on Take Care he’s more interested in exhuming, resurrecting, killing and re-burying his exes than he is his competition. Usually under the influence of many, many drinks (God, this is a drunk album). “First I made you who you are, then I made it. And you’re wasted with your ladies. Yeah, I’m the reason that you always getting faded,” he sings on “A Shot” later adding, “You’ve been crying all night and drinking all summer.” On “Marvins Room” he sing-raps, “I don’t think I’m conscious of making monsters out of the women I sponsor till it all goes bad … but shit it’s all good.”

There’s plenty of blood on the tracks, but some of it belongs to Drake, himself. And I’m just as interested in Aubrey as I am Alisha and Catya (or Rihanna and Nicki, for that matter). When Drake’s not rapping about all his exes living in (Houston) Texas, he’s rapping about himself. But that’s a tricky proposition. Drake gets clowned for talking about how fame has negatively impacted his life, but I don’t think he’s really that caught up on it. Like he said to GQ, “People always act like I spend my life crying in a dark room. I don’t, I’m good.” But, shit, it’s not all good. Drake’s problem is more existential. The thing that vexes him is the thing that vexes a lot of people these days; the way we communicate with one another has somehow created a time where we’re all wildly nostalgic for the past, ambivalent about the future — despite how much we talk about it — and completely unequipped to deal with the present.

Maybe nobody with Drake’s 1%er life has the right to whine about anything, but when he raps, on “Underground Kings,” “That’s whats important and what happened before this. When me and my crew was all about this rapper from New Orleans. Singing ‘walking like a man, finger on the trigger I got money in my pocket, I’m a uptown nigga.’ With fame on my mind, my girl on my nerves, I was pushing myself to get something that I deserve. That was back in the days, Acura days,” I feel like I understand everything I need to know about him.

Whether he’s longing to be back in his girlfriend’s dorm room, like he did on Thank Me Later, or reminiscing over blasting Baby’s “Neck of the Woods,” in his Acura, the past always burns brighter then whatever is happening in the present. I can’t help but identify with his mindset, even if I can’t touch his tax bracket.

“Underground Kings” very much reminds me of the kind of bloated arena tracks Jay-Z was making on Blueprint 2, which, coming from me, is a real compliment. It’s one of the many gifts of this Drake album. Take Care is probably my favorite record of the year. No hip-hop record since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy makes as excited to go trawling through my iTunes library to listen to rap records I’ve neglected for too long. In the same way Fantasy sent me back to dirty Dilla, Large Pro, Havoc, and Pete Rock productions, Take Care had me cueing up Yo Gotti’s Cocaine Muzik 2 and Birdman’s Fast Money, Juvenile’s 400 Degreez and UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty. Any time a record makes you want to listen to more music, to appreciate it deeper, it means it’s doing something right.

Still, with all those records fighting for air time, I still go back to Take Care. It’s such a strange, weirdly sequenced, palpably angry, obviously sad and ultimately triumphant record and it contains multitudes. The way “Take Care” samples Jamie xx’s Gil Scott-Heron song makes Rihanna seem lonely and hoarse and sounds like a Shep Pettibone New Order remix playing at party downstairs. The way “A Shot,” pulls the Trojan horse move of hiding a cutthroat break-up song inside of something that sounds like a Tiffany ballad from the 80’s. The way “Marvins Room” sounds like James Blake mixed with Stars of the Lid. The way Drake makes you wait for 3 verses, til you’re practically tweaking, to hear Rick Ross on “Lord Knows.” Drake always leaves wanting more, looking for different wrinkles and clues because he gives you so much of himself, “working with the negatives to make for better pictures,” and then softening the blow of his warts-and-all persona with a “shit it’s all good.” That’s the thing with people who give so much of themselves in such strange circumstances as at a bar, or through music. You can never tell if there’s still something they’re hiding. And no matter how real it seems, you still can’t tell if it’s an act. Who knows if it is. Who cares?

Rembert Browne: …and with all of this said, Take Care might not be the most important album released today. It’s arguably the best, but important not so much.

Enter the social-commentary experiment disguised as a hip-hop album referred to as Camp, by Childish Gambino.

The only appropriate way to lead into this is with a Dave Chappelle quote:

    “Bill Cosby said some real shit and the whole world freaked out on him. For what? For having an opinion? Just because he was selling pudding pops for the last 40 years, people forget he’s a nigga from Philly, from the projects, and he might say some real shit to say from time to time.” —For What It’s Worth

The same quote could be used to describe what Donald Glover has done with Camp, but instead of fully snapping in his late 50s/early 60s like Bill did, Donald decided to “say some real shit from time to time” before he turned 30.

I listen to Camp and don’t treat it like an album. I mean that in the sense that the music has taken a very strong, deliberate backseat to some of the issues he tackles throughout the 13-track release. I like the production, the beats are enjoyable enough that they don’t detract from the lyrics, but I genuinely couldn’t care less. I haven’t felt that way about an album in a long time. Somehow I think that’s simultaneously an underhanded compliment and an overhanded diss.

The two men that released albums today, Mr. Graham and Mr. Glover, seem to be living moderately parallel twenty-something lives of fame, fortune, and an overabundance of women at their real-life and Twitpic perusal. But having said that, their releases couldn’t be more different, from an emotional standpoint, which is interesting seeing as how they’re both extremely emotional. If these two were The Throne 2.0, Drake would be Kanye and Gambino would be Jay. Take Care is Drake trying to sort out his life in real-time, with the listener unsure of how emotionally stable Aubrey ever is, a la Mr. West. Gambino, on the other hand, is very much Jay in the sense that he gives his highly personal take on the world and where he stands in the cosmos, but it sounds as if he’s been sorting these feelings out for some time now and finally can articulate them clearly. With Drizzy and Yeezy, you’re listening to them be emotional, whereas with Jay and Gambino, you’re listening to them as they describe emotions.

The same way Watch The Throne is a platform for Mr. West and Mr. Carter to give their personal take on being black and successful, Camp serves as Glover’s platform to channel his inner rapper/sociologist, Childish Gambino, and discuss all that is the black double consciousness, operating in two different worlds, while trying (and usually failing) to please the two different constituencies equally.

What Donald is talking about isn’t new. Scholarly texts have been dedicated to the predicament Donald raises in “Firefly”:

    “You don’t speak to the hood, man.”
    If I was given one chance I think I could, man,
    These black kids want something new, I swear it,
    Something they want to say but couldn’t ’cause they’re embarrassed.

Or the sad-but-true state of affairs in the opening track, “Outside”:

    It’s weird, you think that they’d be proud of ‘em,
    But when you leave the hood they think that you look down on ‘em,
    The truth is we still struggle on different plains
    Seven dollars an hour with vouchers, it’s all the same.

For some reason, at the height of his popularity, Donald Glover decided not only to make a race-charged album, but also to put himself out there as an insecure role model for a legion of insecure young kids who will inevitably devour the content in this album. This should not be taken lightly. Instead of going the traditional route of using your current popularity and profitability to get more popular and profitable, he’s using his mainstream popularity to spread a non-mainstream, unpopular message to a diverse an audience as possible. Imagine for a moment if Take Care was an album about the difficulties of being a half-Black/half-Jewish former child star from Canada on a New Orleans-based record label called Young Money headed by a man named Lil Wayne. Imagine how eye-opening a record like that would be. If that ever happens, it will change the world. It would be fantastic, because we would finally learn a little bit about a guy named Aubrey who I can’t imagine only cares about money and Toronto.

As someone a few years his junior, the premise behind a lyric like, “The black experience is black and serious. ‘Cause being black, my experience is no one hearing us. White kids get to wear whatever hat they want, when it comes to black kids, one size fits all” from “Hold You Down” doesn’t blow my mind. If I were in college, it would have been rewound a few times. If I were in high school, I would have written it down and it might have made it to my short list of “revolutionary yearbook quotes”. And if I were in middle school, I probably would have been scared, because at the time I thought only my mom talked like that. Because of the the impact some of these lyrics will have on the younger, more malleable-minded cohort, I’m excited and thrilled that these thoughts are being stated by an “America’s Sweetheart” figure like Donald Glover.

Chappelle said something else profound once:

    “There’s truth in jest. I pride myself in saying real shit that people don’t even notice I’m saying. But they feel it.” — Inside the Actor’s Studio.

While Camp is stockpiled to the brim with mid-nineties nostalgia references, anecdotes about his sexual exploits, and other hints that remind us that Childish Gambino is still Donald Glover, the guy who used to write for 30 Rock and The Daily Show, for every few jokes, there’s something that makes you sit back and think about the truth in his lyrics. Unlike Take Care, which does not come off as a risky album, but more like another above-average release by Drake, Camp feels like an album by a man who knows this could be it. There is no guarantee that people will be interested in him as a rapper in a year or even a month.

Donald could go from the rapping 1% to 99% within a blink of an eye. “Leave It All Out On The Court” would have also been an accurate (but horrible) title for this album, because that’s essentially what he did for 56 minutes and 6 seconds. You feel this in the way the album ends, with the last track being a Gambino rap, followed by 4-plus minutes of Donald telling a story. It’s very Kanye/“Last Call”/The College Dropout and Jay/“My First Song”/The Black Album of him to do that, especially since both of those songs were potentially their last (Kanye because of failure and Jay because of “retirement”).

I hope “That Power” isn’t Gambino’s last song with this type of high-profile platform. And like his comedic, “real shit-talking” forefathers, I hope his next opportunity isn’t when he 61 and I hope, after the release of Camp, he doesn’t run off to Africa. Fingers crossed.

Previously from Chris Ryan:
NBA Lockout: NBA Nuclear Winter Reading List
Don’t Fear The Reaper: In Defense Of Ryan Clark
Rankonia: The Triangle Power Rankings

Previously from Rembert Browne:
Should You Be Watching Hell on Wheels?
Interview: Allen Stone, the Next Great Soul Singer?
Rembert Explains the ’80s: Lionel Richie’s “Hello” Video

Filed Under: Childish Gambino, Drake, Music