Rap hasn’t been concerned with “street authenticity” in years, and anyone who tells you the opposite is living in a past that’s long since been shattered by the likes of Kanye West, Drake, Kid Cudi, and a wide array of performers who represent the culture’s well-documented shift from the so-called inner city toward the formerly peripheral middle class. It is no longer exclusively the domain of “the ghetto” from whence it came. (That’s not to sideline those rappers whose work is, intentionally or not, intimately concerned with the persistent structural and social inequalities that birthed hip-hop in the first place.)
Debates rage on, but the obvious is obvious: Rick Ross is a former correctional officer turned fictional drug kingpin, 2 Chainz is a near-teetotaling foodie whose rap persona is the embodiment of self-indulgent hedonism. The divergence between their life and art is known, yet they are among rap’s biggest stars. The leeway to their inauthentic portrayals of self comes in part because of the elaborate worlds they’ve constructed around themselves; emotional honesty, be it tied to aspiration or just entertainment, often trumps facts.
Childish Gambino, the writer-turned-comedian-turned-actor-turned-rapper formerly known as Donald Glover, fits that matrix perfectly. He’s a self-described nerd who began writing for NBC’s 30 Rock as a 21-year-old fresh out of NYU before joining the cast of cult TV hit Community, launching a stand-up career that peaked with a half-hour Comedy Central special, and, to varying degrees of success, trying his hand at music.
For the alleged Tumblr crowd that is broadly described as his primary audience, he’s almost messianic. Like them—or at least like the stereotypes of them—he’s a millennial’s millennial, an Internet-obsessed but Internet-angsty 30-year-old whose concerns about loneliness, failure, and heartbreak fall under the growing #sadrap descriptor. For everyone else, he’s a poseur whose rap stance is unbelievable; choruses suggesting he stick to acting are common.
After all, he launched his rap career with several false starts—first, a terrible name that came from an online Wu-Tang name generator (c’mon, son) and which he acknowledges he would change if he could (he can). Second, his foray into music came in the form of a series of mixtapes and then an EP and a full-length album gratingly characterized by awkward delivery and overwrought punchlines that were neither clever nor funny. A joke rapper is one thing, but a bad joke rapper is intolerable. It’s difficult to bristle and cringe at the same time, but how else can one respond to lines like, “She’s an overachiever / All she does is suck seed” and “I got a girl on my arm, dude show respect / Somethin’ crazy and Asian: Virginia Tech” from 2011’s Camp?
It’s no wonder, then, that people outside Gambino’s core fanbase are reluctant to give him a chance; he’s staked his ground in hip-hop’s collective consciousness as a perennial outsider. But Because the Internet, which is more phantasmagoria than album, could change that. The concept album’s 24 tracks, including a handful of mood-setting instrumentals, and its accompanying 72-page screenplay embedded with visuals and audio and detailed, extensive marketing rollout represent some larger entity; what exactly that entity is, admittedly, still unclear.
As the album’s release date arrives and more pieces of the puzzle are revealed, the extent to which Because the Internet is more than just a collection of songs is becoming increasingly apparent. The screenplay, which is embedded with the corresponding music and visuals, makes everything a little clearer: Gambino—or Glover, or both—plays the part of The Boy, a rich kid who lives in a mansion with an entourage and a rotating cadre of women like a reluctant Gatsby. The narrative follows The Boy through a series of misadventures, all of which are themed in the emotions and emotional fallout of love, loss, and modern, post-Internet life. In its totality, Because the Internet is an ambitious and ambitiously complex project whose meaning requires a wealth of context, including the Flying Lotus and Chance the Rapper-featuring short film Gambino released in August, to be understood.
Musically, it is a rich, cinematic arc that straddles genres and often finds itself a couple of steps removed from the recognizable deliveries of Drake, Big Sean, and other contemporary rappers. While Gambino’s flow is much improved from previous efforts and the awkwardness is considerably smoothed over, it’s not until the last third of the album, after the screenplay’s narrative climaxes and after he forsakes rapping in favor of straight-up singing, that he sounds most convincing and most interesting. Over alternately lush and sparse production, largely from Gambino himself and in collaboration with Ludwig Göransson and Stefan Ponce, he laments loss on “Flight of the Navigator” and “Urn” (“We are all cold water / Why try at all?”) and wrestles with self and legacy on “Pink Toes” and “Earth: The Oldest Computer” (“See now I don’t wanna see an era / See now I just wanna live forever”).
If it sounds a little pretentious and heavy-handed at times, that’s because it can be. But Gambino seems keen on constructing rap’s most elaborate performance art-style persona by erecting an undeniably creative, if esoteric, vehicle through which to discuss This Modern Life without the moralizing that usually comes packaged with the conversation. Over the past little while, Gambino has been honest about his vulnerabilities, emotional and otherwise. A series of Instagram photos of notes scrawled on hotel stationary led both to wide ridicule and to concerns that he was in need of help; the same goes for recent interviews and public appearances. In retrospect, however, those appearances have been peppered with references to the screenplay and to The Boy, down to plot points, wardrobe choices, and overall ethos.
It’s easy to conflate them and easier still to lose track of edges where The Boy, Gambino, and Glover meet, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe we’re, as Because the Internet suggests, being trolled. So who do we believe? The boy, the rapper, or the actor? None and all three.