“Atlanta, Georgia Got Somethin’ for Yah”: Childish Gambino's Latest

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This week, Childish Gambino – the stage name for actor, comedian, writer, producer, and rapper Donald Glover – released a previously unknown mixtape and an EP, STN MTN and Kauai respectively, to great fanfare in the music world. STN MTN includes a wide variety of songs, all of which return to Childish’s southern roots. The mixtape’s name comes from the town of Stone Mountain, a quiet suburb of Atlanta where Glover grew up.

Atlanta is a huge hub for music in the South and is arguably one of the greatest hip-hop centers in the country, home to artists such as Outkast, Ludacris, 2 Chainz, and Cee Lo Green. Childish Gambino is another such musician, born into a long tradition of hip-hop, country, soul, and funk.

Childish became a huge sensation after the release of his mixtape Culdesac in 2010 and his first album Camp in 2011. His distinctive sound, consisting of intensely personal lyrics over self-produced beats, has elements of trap and soul – two trademarks of the unique music emanating from Atlanta.

Like many of his albums, mixtapes, and EPs, STN MTN revolves around a central idea – in this case, it is exploring the city of Atlanta. It begins with Childish recounting a dream where he “ran Atlanta and played on every radio station,” which introduces another major concept that permeates a majority of his work: looking back on a younger impoverished and lonely self with the hindsight of his extraordinary career.

The songs on the mixtape seem to be more polished versions of his earlier works;  “Dream / Southern Hospitality / Partna Dem” and “No F**ks Given” are classic Gambino tracks with piercing lyrics layered over a trap beat. His songs aren’t radically different than some of his earlier material, but these new beats are much stronger and hint at a better understanding of recording and production.

“Money Baby” and “Chandler Road” both contain fairly technical vocals, something that Gambino worked on in Camp but perfected in Because the Internet. They are reminiscent of “Firefly” and “All the Shine”, the first time he left the confines of standard rap and introduced hooks where he sang. In both cases, he brought in backup vocalists, but he essentially uses his voice to emphasize different elements with a similar sound to create a more fluid and continuous song.

“U Don’t Have to Call” is another distinctively Childish song. He takes a short dialogue with a beat consisting entirely of a snap of his fingers and slowly adds more and more layers to create a full gambit of sounds. He speaks over the beat until about halfway through, telling the story of a nameless girl in the South who leaves, gets pregnant and has to return home, comparing her story to that of Cinderella. His informal way of conversing with the listener is a technique he explored in Because the Internet – he wants to paint a picture of a given scene or even the larger experience of growing up poor and black in Atlanta, and his music is never enough to accurately portray what he has to say. His detached and monotonous story telling hints at some of the formative experiences of his life: depression, detachment and isolation, poverty, and discrimination.

The mixtape ends with the song “DJ”, whose final line concludes the work with “and then I woke up.” The entire set is essentially a tour around a place that no longer exists. Childish’s experiences in Atlanta – as a performer who has already caught the world’s attention – clouds his judgment of the city, and the only way in which he can capture the city as it truly exists is to dream as his younger self envisioning a time in which he doesn’t have the same persona as he does now.

He views the city through a lens of youth but captures it in music that he wasn’t capable of creating until he was much more experienced. This dichotomy permeates the album: on one hand he is experiencing the city but isn’t able to capture it in his music, and on the other hand, fame and experience has given him the ability to accurately portray it in song, but he doesn’t have the same connection to it as a physical location that he once had.

The mixtape itself is not a huge game changer. It lacks the vision and technical prowess of Because the Internet and doesn’t have the novelty of Camp. Yet, as a whole, it is a huge success.

STN MTN is not presented as an album, but instead as a mixtape where it represents a side project for Childish – something that is meant to fill up time before he releases something big. Given those constraints, it becomes an incredible work of art. Even more impressive than that, he released it for free and even reiterates that fact several times throughout the recording.

Gambino’s genius rests in his ability to produce beats and draw up lyrics that elude other artists. With this mixtape, he is showing the music world that he has a defined voice and can out produce anyone else, even when he is out touring and just now blowing up as a hit in the hip-hop community.

Both STN MTN and Kauai are available for download for free from datPiff and can be found here:

 

 

“This is what y’all have been waiting for – in Gambino we trust.”

Image source: wikimedia