Childish Gambino, "Camp" (Glassnote)
Drake, "Take Care" (Universal Republic)
Now we're really seeing the impact made by Kanye West -- back when he was precocious and fresh and carving out a space in hip-hop for sheltered kids with zero street cred. The son of a Chicago college professor, West struggled to be "real" (whatever that means) by skewering hip-hop clichés, bringing a chunky, clunky flow and, most importantly, occasionally being quite funny. Now, of course, West's innocence is long lost and he's gallivanting around the country with Jay-Z on their tour for the underwhelming "Watch the Throne" collaboration. But into the vacuum step two similarly sensitive hip-hop hopefuls: megastar Drake and the acquired but rewarding tastes of comedian Donald Glover.
Only one of them went No. 1 last week. Following his platinum debut, last year's "Thank Me Later," Canadian TV teen-turned-superstar rapper Drake returns with high expectations for those thanks because of how real he's managed to keep things amid his crushing success. That "Take Care" rocketed to the top of the charts is a surprise only because of how weighty it is, loaded down with Drake's endless hand-wringing over his reputation, his new tax bracket and the Atlas-like burden of his non-gangsta ideals. Raised in a wealthy Toronto suburb and reared at a Jewish day school, the surprisingly moody and dreary Aubrey Drake Graham, 25, appears just in time for Christmas as hip-hop's own Jacob Marley -- pulling his gold chains behind him and fretting about what a drag fame and wealth have been.
"Got rich off a mixtape!" he blurts in "Underground Kings" -- not boastful, he's incredulous, maybe a little scared -- referring to his earlier breakthrough. But then he threatens: "I might talk that real if you ask me what I care about." This is halfway through an album on which he's done little else -- from repeated assurances that he's steered clear of a life in which the only "outcome is income" ("Over My Dead Body") to firm promises for his girl that he's not, repeat not, cheating on her ("Cameras"). He's on a spending spree like any hot MC, buying Persian rugs and Platinum Chanel, but money doesn't buy him love he declares in "Crew Love," a song that boasts about making dinner reservations for 20 -- but Drake's not flashing his cash, he's proud to have the company of the "realest niggas."
Drake's Woody Allen-esque existential malaise, however, moans at a funereal pace. Without many beats to drive his train of overthought, the music underneath all this angst is monochromatic and mundane. Gal pal Rihanna joins him for the barely pulsing title track, and most of the guests (even Nicki Minaj and, of course, Drake's champion and mentor Lil Wayne) sound uninspired among Drake's monotone flow and increasingly prominent crooning. "Doing It Wrong" ends with a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. (That's not necessarily a hard-to-come-by, old-school stamp of approval; it's a gift Wonder has also bestowed upon B.J. Thomas and Prefab Sprout.) "Take Care" is just a basic sophomore slump, the album most out-of-the-gate successes write about their out-of-the-gate success. The well-heeled Drake simply can't summon the usual visceral interest in his, much less a shred of humor.
For the crucial wisecracking perspective, look to Glover, aka Childish Gambino (a moniker he got from an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator). A graduate of NYU, Glover, 28, was raised in a tony Atlanta suburb, boasts a writing Emmy for "30 Rock" and is known for portraying Troy on the sitcom "Community." Gangsta, he ain't, but therein lies much of his power. Glover finds his position as an outsider -- "the only black kid at a Sufjan concert," he points out -- and celebrates it with the gusto of Weezer rolling D&D dice straight into American rock and roll.
Like Drake, Glover's Childish Gambino challenges the typical macho/boho identity of the hip-hop MC. Glover's not afraid to dive right into race, either, repeatedly claiming in the requisite boast ("Bonfire") that he is mistaken for white. "I sound weird, like 'nigga' with a hard R," he raps, referring to a bit from his stand-up routine about black kids thinking he sounded white when he said that. "Yeah, they say they want the realness, rap about my real life," he continues. "Told me I should just quit: 'First of all, you talk white! / Second off, you talk like you haven't given up yet." Later he chides tastemakers such as Pitchfork for only promoting "rappers who crazy or hood" ("All the Shine"). Glover is probably not crazy and definitely not hood: "In the projects -- man, that sounds fancy to me," his younger self marvels ("Outside"). On it goes, until he's had enough in "Hold You Down": "Niggas got me feelin' I ain't black enough to go to church / Culture shock at barber shops cause I ain't hood enough / We all look the same to the cops, ain't that good enough?"
Glover's defensiveness comes off less as a peccadillo than a legitimate case for inclusion -- surely there's room in hip-hop for the swaggerless -- and it largely works because "Camp" is pretty camp. Childish Gambino is the court jester before The Throne, portraying greater honesty with his humor. He's keeps it reined in, though, and well shy of becoming just another vanity project by an actor. "Camp" has more beats than "Take Care," for sure, if not always the freshest (though the guitar riff underneath "All the Shine" is sharp and, c'mon, tuba sample in "You See Me"). Glover's main drawback is that he's pretty rough with women; several rhymes come close enough to misogyny to earn him a Tumblr blog about his "woman problem" (which he addresses directly and harshly in "Backpackers"). This gambino is childish, no doubt, but he explains it away not, thank heavens, as comedic license but as, you guessed it, being real: "I know it's dumb, that's the f---ing reason I'm doing it / So why does everyone have a problem with talking stupid sh--? Or is it real sh--? / 'Cause sometimes that stupid sh-- is real sh--." not exactly deep but true enough, at least as far as "Camp" being a hundred times more entertaining and satisfying than most of hip-hop's offerings this year.
Rihanna, "Talk That Talk" (Island Def Jam)
Money talks, and that's the speech in question via Rihanna's new album title. She's had a
stunning run atop the charts for a solid year, recently becoming the fastest solo artist ever to have 20 Top-10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and the youngest artist to log 10 No. 1 singles (three of them from her previous album). Now exactly one year after she delivered "Loud," she's back with "Talk That Talk," the 23-year-old star's sixth album in seven years. That chart success is already slipping, though -- the new disc debuted behind Michael Buble's weeks-old Christmas record and (ick) Nickelback -- and it sounds as if it was in such a rush to market that most of the album barely has a chance to walk that walk.
In between her world tour, plus appearances on tracks by other artists from Drake to Coldplay, Rihanna and a motley crew of producers and collaborators -- including Alex Da Kid, The-Dream, Shondrae and StarGate -- assembled a surprisingly plain record with little to add lyrically or musically. Rarely has my attention wandered this much during a Rihanna album, and it's difficult to imagine a track that could be duller to open an album with than the thudding, somnambulant Dr. Luke-produced "You Da One." In the end, she goes for "Titanic" bombast in the closing "Farewell," and in between it's a lot of previous beats and licks.
This being Ri-Ri, there's beating and licking going on in the lyrics, too -- but less than usual. There's a moment midway through the album that's remarkably similar to a moment halfway through her June concert at United Center: After sleepwalking through a requisite trio of sexed-up songs (the title track, featuring needless input about Rihanna's bladder from Jay-Z, plus the eye-rolling double entendres of "Cockiness (Love It)" and the quickie "Birthday Cake"), she seems relieved to have the dominatrix posturing behind her and comes alive in a few lovely songs about love. "We All Want Love" (hello, Rihanna Benatar!) and "Drunk on Love" (she samples the XX's "Intro"!) downshift but maintain strong beats, driving the energy and at least making a pounding new case for Rihanna as "hopeless romantic."