Album Review: Childish Gambino's Poindexter

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Childish Gambino. Photo via ChildishGambino.com


Whether or not you really ever believed Hip Hop was Dead, there’s no denying the changes it’s undergone in the past decade. Bass-y beats and mean muggin’ thug rhyme runners are so cliche they’ve become a caricature of themselves; how else can you explain 50 Cent having his own video game? So where does a real hip hop head turn? Like an ostrich: underground.

There’s the nerdcore movement, with thick-frame posterboy MC Frontalot. There’s a steadily growing white midwestern influence, with guys like Mac Lethal in Kansas City and the whole Minneapolis crew, not least of which is Atmosphere and Brother Ali. And then there’s the Kid Cudi types, Kanye 2.0’s who rock Converse and KidRobot hoodies. For these guys, hip hop has gone from mean streets to Melrose, with a quick stop along the NYC/LA rooftop party DJ scene. And while Cudi is perhaps the most recognizable face in this new wave of high-end high-brow hip hop, he’s definitely not alone - and he isn’t even the best. Allow me to introduce Childish Gambino.

First, a little background. If Childish Gambino doesn’t sound familiar, perhaps Donald Glover does? As in, writer from 30 Rock, star from Derrick Comedy, comedian from UCB, mastermind for the movie Mystery Team, and friend of everyone cool ever? Let’s hope so. Now, with that being said, Gambino isn’t out to just crack jokes over MIDI beats, and his multiple full-length albums, constant demo leaks and mixtapes are proof enough that this man not only likes to rap, he’s pretty fucking good at it too.

Poindexter is the latest album drop, available for free from the Childish Gambino site as a follow up to 2008’s Sick Boi. And for everything that Sick Boi was - well written, bass heavy, and even a little hard - it lacked some production quality and true mic presence. Thankfully on Poindexter, Gambino has kept the best and discarded the rest, leaving a fluid 14 tracks that make you want to stop toting your Tek-9 and pick up your MacBook.

The album opens with “I ain’t your ordinary n*gga / look around, this ain’t what ordinary gets ya” off the track Extraordinary, and you know right away that Gambino isn’t about to stop where Sick Boi left off, reppin’ flashy skeakers and expensive hoodies in an upper middle-class sort of way. The track never quits with it’s expansive sound - giving the whole album intro a robust feel, before dipping down into the grime with So Much Better, probably the best track on the album. Straight, breathless lyrics jam this joint from from to back as Gambino flows in his usual one-octave-too-high style. From there, the album rolls on smoothly, with stadium beats blaring on The Awesome (with a little help from MC Chris), dance tracks like Hollerin’, and the requisite love track: Almost There. There’s a polished version of The Rocker that first sprung up as a leak on the Gambino site a while ago, and Yes is a second take on the best-known Childish song to date, Get Like Me, which serves as the Mystery Team trailer song.

Thankfully, the writing is just as strong as ever on Poindexter. Each track seems to find a way to shout out the bright clothing and streetwear-expensive tastes that Gambino has come to love. There’s “colors like candy”, “got my shit checked like Nike”, and “the hood respect me, I rose from the ashes / call me the phoenix in the clear-rimmed glasses”, just to name a few. And with clever pop culture drops running the gamut from Mike Vick, The Wire, to Kid Cudi himself, you really start to get the smart sensibilities behind the man with the mic. Add in a dash of ego-as-comedy (“fuck you, you don’t get shit from now on / unless you’ve got a demo tape that I can lay some brown on”), and you’re starting to really understand what Childish Gambino has to offer.

In keeping with Sick Boi tradition, Poindexter goes out of its way to bring in some young guest stars for a verse or two on a number of different tracks. Unfortunately, where Nick Packard and Chaz Kangas elevated tracks on Sick Boi, most of the jump-ins on Poindexter don’t cut and paste as well as they should. It’s good to see MC Chris and DC (also of Derrick Comedy fame) still do their thing, and Dree Dei on the party jam Hawk Jones is a welcome surprise. But, for the most part, tracks like My Name Bam-B would be better served with more Childish and less guest.

Then again, the world could always use more Childish Gambino. Luckily the leaks, full albums, and side projects (mc DJ) don’t seem to be slowing down any, so there should be plenty more where Poindexter comes from. As for where Donald Glover himself is headed, you can’t imagine anywhere but up. He’s signed a two-year deal with Universal and is onboard the new prime time comedy Community. Let’s just hope he doesn’t let the beats drop along the way.