The relationship between the indie music world and rap is a contentious one, rife with racial tension and gross misunderstandings. It doesn't really matter if the opinions are generally positive or negative; the reasons that inspire mostly white hipsters to hate to love (or love to hate) the next rap sensation are often tenuous and most often reductive.
We're confronted with an indie world where the most routinely heralded hip-hop collective, the endlessly confrontational Odd Future, gains attention by allegedly assaulting a female photographer at a concert. It's a world where some music festivals grasp at credibility by recruiting combative rap outfits like Public Enemy or Raekwon, and where others tokenize less thuggish artists to allay concerns that their lineups aren't diverse enough.
That last quip is directed at Asheville's own Moogfest. While in most regards an excellent display, the October 2011 incarnation of the synth manufacturer’s annual celebration included one hip-hop act on the main stage, an artist who is most often seen as a toe in the rap water for white listeners intimidated by the form. That rapper was Childish Gambino, aka Donald Glover, and he returns to Asheville for a Monday date at the Orange Peel.
It's not hard to understand why Glover is seen as an easy hip-hop out for events such as Moogfest. For starters, he's most famous not as a rapper but as an actor, giving goofy life to the washed-up jock Troy Barnes on NBC's newly reinstated comedy Community. It's a cult hit among the Arrested Development crowd, easy fodder for a post on the mostly defunct blog Stuff White People Like. More than that, the beats on his 2011 LP Camp – energetically recreated by a full band at his shows – pull openly and often from the latter day rock cannon. The thinly painted blues guitar and violin combo that backs the admittedly terrible spoken-word outro “That Power” point to John Mayer. The blaring industrial synths of the considerably better “Heartbeat” will easily seduce any Justice fan who hears them.
“If you buy only one hip-hop album this year, I'm guessing it'll be Camp,” Pitchfork's Ian Cohen offers in his 2011 review of the LP. “The album maintains some of the overweening humor of Donald Glover's sitcom Community, but Glover's exaggerated, cartoonish flow and overblown pop-rap production are enough to make Camp one of the most uniquely unlikable rap records of this year.”
It's true, as his own producer, Glover draws from a wide palette of sounds outside the typical rap spectrum. It's a practice that sometimes sees him falling on his face even if it more often elevates him to a level his flow alone could never achieve. But Glover also goes to great lengths to unite this pop appeal with hip-hop grit. His portrayal of a poor adolescent is honest and uninhibited, rich with detail and lightened by an uncommon ability to find humor in life's darker moments. But his favorite subject is the contentious nature of his own career. He takes aim at his listeners and critics, speculating cleverly as to the racial implications of their opinions.
“I sound weird, like n—-er with a hard 'r'” he jokes on lead single “Bonfire,” twisting complaints about his flow with the near infinite issues of the most controversial word in rap's vocabulary. He gets more specific on other songs. “The only white rapper who's allowed to say the n-word,” he quips on the ultra-aggressive “Backpackers.” “I buy a bunch of 'em and put it on my black card,” he finishes before adding, “Black male in short shorts, I'm double suspect.“
Glover's dissection of race and its complicated impact on the relationship between indie rock and rap is fascinating. Still, it feels like a crutch. With Camp, Glover paints his critics as racists, wearing his skin color as a bullet-proof vest against what is often justified criticism. In some ways his reliance on this theme is as tokenizing as a festival throwing him on stage amid a crowd of electro-leaning rockers.
Childish Gambino's case is a microcosm of hip-hop's role in the world of indiedom, proof of the vast divide between these two worlds. Unfortunately for Glover, as often as he bridges the gap, he also falls into the chasm.
— Jordan Lawrence is music editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.