Arts Desk

My Strangest Musical Beef of 2010

As Joe Warminsky's recent post on Darwin Deez's self-titled album goes to show, music critics don't like every piece of music they stumble upon in a given year. And, as the comments for that post show, every once in a while a musician will respond to an assault on their creation.

Beefs between musicians and critics aren't new, but that's not to say it isn't odd when an artist responds in kind. Needless to say, I got a little flummoxed when L.A. rapper Childish Gambino—otherwise known as Donald Glover, who plays Troy on NBC's Community and wrote for 30 Rock—called out a criticism I had made of his latest mixtape, Culdesac.

I discovered Glover's rapper alias when a friend posted his first mixtape of 2010, I AM JUST A RAPPER, on her Tumblr. Despite the mixtape's sonic incompetence—it's basically Glover rapping over popular indie tunes with the original vocals intact—RAPPER was an unexpected treat, and Glover proved to be a sharp, witty rapper. And then Culdesac sucked a lot of the energy, voice, and sly wit out of the equation and made for an oft-vapid, over-produced, and mediocre mixtape. Needless to say, I felt a bit disillusioned and wrote a review that—I felt—reflected the issues I had with the album from the perspective of a listener who has enjoyed Glover's previous output.

And then, eventually, Glover responded.

In an interview with the Hip Hip Update, Glover called out some criticisms I made of Culdesac. Namely, my criticism that his lyrics were flawed and formulaic, and that the constant mentions of his mentor, Tina Fey, sounded strange. Beginning at the 1:35 mark of the video, Glover responded to those two criticisms I (and apparently others) made of his album (quote below):

I would read an article, and in the same article, it'd be like, 'this guy raps about the same stuff all rappers rap about,' and then they'd be like, 'you can't rap about Tina Fey.' Which one is it? Is it, like, I can't rap about Tina Fey, because that's not what rap is about? I get mad when people are just like, 'you rap about money and girls.' Money is a tool to do what you want to do, and I love girls.

I'm still baffled by the whole situation. Baffled how a handful of complaints about a musician I kind of enjoy snowballed into a black-and-white image of me as a "hater." Somehow, a humorous quip about how I thought Tina Fey's name is brought up in the album quite frequently translated into a message that I think Glover should not be allowed to do something. Which is probably more dumbfounding than the idea that a rapper name-dropping his mentor and spitting rhymes that fit into hip-hop's status quo are mutually exclusive.

When everyone has an opinion and a PC, some details are bound to get lost in the overflow of information. Misunderstandings aside, I certainly understand how Glover was upset. But, as someone who's enjoyed Glover's work in music and comedy, and someone who admires his creative drive, it was just a bit baffling to be his target.

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  • Joe Warminsky

    Leor: I believe the next step is to cut your own dis track. Seriously, sometimes STREET BEEF is the only solution.

  • Leor Galil

    I'm searching for a producer and hype man as I type...

  • Pingback: My Strangest Musical Beef of 2010 – Arts Desk – Washington City Paper | Leor Galil

  • Moose

    Childish Gambino is the best rapper i have ever heard. Culdesac has less obvious allusions, references, and jokes that can only be comprehended by those who understand what Glover's music is about in its entirety. Doing so reveals how Glover has tied his recuring themes of self-fulfillment present in his Sic Boi mixtape with his ostentatious style of Poindexter, climaxing in the truly unique and original Culdesac mixtape.

    Not to hate, but i just think you missed it.

  • Leor Galil

    Moose: And that's your opinion. You clearly are a big fan, and that's all well and good. I don't doubt the sincerity and attempt to tie in thematic qualities, I just don't think it was all that well executed. Glover's earlier mixtapes showed poise, a sly and sharp delivery and a great energy. To me, that was what made Childish Gambino unique, not the overly dramatic instrumentals, the regurgitating of egoistic praise, the lack of energy and voice that seemed to mimic Drake and Wayne while devaluing that of his own. I understand the in-jokes, but in-jokes don't make a good record, they just make a crowd of friends and super-fans. If you feel I "missed the point," you almost entirely missed any word I wrote, because I admit I like his work, and Culdesac represented a misstep in a promising voice.

    And I'd hardly call it "truly unique" because, the phrasing of perhaps an original situation is executed in a re-hashed lyrical style, and the term "truly unique" is awfully redundant.

  • Moose

    Honestly, I didn't even read the review. I.e. I mirrored whatever general statements you quoted from it in an attempt to create an approachable response to your post (i mean who wouldn't nod their head at "truly unique" when glossing over this rarely read discussion board) But now i have read the review.

    First off, I Am Just A Rapper wasn't his first album, a concept you completely neglected in your response to me.

    If you want "multi-syllabic" rhymes, listen to the first 40 seconds of Hero. Visually, almost none of those words should rhyme (Better, Feather, Ghetto, Develop, Special) but he makes it work.

    And dissing Difference? That song sets the tone for the whole album. Its part of his message. Imitation will only get you so far. One of the first things i learned in business, is that the only way to succeed is to be differentiable.

    You say he relies on crutches but yet you praise a him for sampling an R&B loop? "Young Forever", "Diamonds from Sierra Leone", "Opposite of Adults". Sound familiar? Glover may use traditional material or methods, but he does not rely on them. In fact he expands on them. He doesn't talk about power, he talks about how many jobs he has.

    The best part about Gambino is that he encourages about ambition in his listeners. "Actor, writer, Rapper, N**** i do all of it", "Cause she know theyre aint sleep in my schedule, Having nightmares that I'm the black Heath Ledger". And when he does talk about women, power, and money, he has worked for these things. From the internet, to writing, to acting, and now rapping, Glover is a Renaissance man, different from other renaissance men in the fact that instead of being mediocre in all these fields, he excels.

    In addition, Gambino shows his emotional side in "Im on it", "These girls" and "So Fly", demonstrating how versatile his message can be.

    He shows off in the songs "You know me", to me, an amped up and refined "The rocker", as well as in the lyrical masterpiece "let me dope you" (to me the only shortcoming in the whole album as the beat becomes difficult to stand)

    Getting to the last point, Glover slaps everyone in the face with this album. What? Hes singing now. And I have people who tell me they love him but dont think he has what it takes to sing.
    listen to this then

    All in all, Glover's "lyrical brilliance" is there, and not only in "Do ya Like".
    FOR EXAMPLE, and this will be one of the more extreme ones i can give. If nothing else, read this part

    "I'M Blowin up like my swagger on the gaza, Im writing movies where im making out with Aubrey Plaza"

    Im sure most dont know who Aubrey Plaza is (Parks and Rec, Scott Pilgrim, Mystery Team) but she starred opposite of Glover in his Derrick Comedy feature film "Mystery Team", a movie in which the climax involves a kiss between the two where Glover's Character actually blows in her mouth. No one else would know that, except for the 100,000 (not an accurate number) or so people who have seen this movie.

    Which brings me to my final point.

    You were right.

    He doesn't create music for most people, "just friends and super-fans". Which is honestly why i think he's the best rapper out there. He doesn't care about making it as a rapper. He doesn't need to. That gives him an artistic freedom that not many out there have.

    One last thing, if youre writing a review of a rap album, know your aduience when youre writing,
    "Glover leaned on a handful of stereotypical rap crutches (money, women, power), but created a unique lyrical narrative different than the over-the-top gangsterisms that pervades many overplayed hip-hop tropes."
    Or else youll end up looking like a pretty big Dbag

  • Leor Galil

    Moose: You honestly expect me to take this seriously when you say you didn't even read the review, and then spit out a bunch of nonsense... seriously, you were tripping over you words there.

    Great, you love Childish Gambino. Way to prove it. You've got the biggest dick around in that contest. Here's the punchline:

    Who. Fucking. Cares.

    This is my opinion. And as someone who is a fan of Glover in general - I don't understand how many times I have to reiterate that - I found his in-jokes unnecessary and bothersome. I paid to see "Mystery Team" and thought it was one of the funniest movies I've seen in years. I watch "Community" every week and digest whatever he does. I even know who Aubrey Plaza is. Gasp! Aubrey Plaza?! I know, crazy, right? It's not like her face hasn't been all over the place in recent years.

    But who fucking cares, because that doesn't mean I have to love everything one person does.

    He's got emotions he wants to share. Great. He's got ambitions. Great. He's achieved a lot. Great. I don't have a problem with any of that, and he should be praised for that. But that shouldn't be a reason to praise what is a fairly mediocre album. If anything, it's part of the reason why I felt the album was a let down.

    But here's the thing: this is my opinion. People disagree. I wasn't writing for the fans, I was writing for the general public. That's my fucking audience, and mainstream hip-hop is shouldered with being thought of as having a ton of lyrical content dedicated to money, women and power. (I wrote about hip-hop fairly often, and some of the comments that would crop up sounded downright racist. But then, these readers couldn't tell k-os from KRS-One.) I didn't write for a well-read hip-hop audience, or some uber-fan obsessed with disproving every little facet of someone's opinion for their own little sick satisfaction.

    The point being:

    Have your opinion. It's great that you embrace it. Just don't shove it down other people's throat and not expect to look like a total douchebag in the process. I expect this kind of thing because I write to an audience, an audience with a wealth of differing of opinions. Someone's going to think my opinion is somehow against the very nature of reality, and I can deal with that. I can't deal with assholes who think their version of reality, truth and the arts is the correct answer, is the bible. That fascist thinking sucks.

  • Lt.Crunch

    I don't think this was a direct attack against you. You might be giving yourself too much credit there. I think Artists, when interviewed, tend to give answers... and in this interview, this is what came up. He's pointing out contradictions in reviews he's read. Was it your review on I'm not sure... but if I were to guess, I'd say probably not.

  • Mr. Prion

    I agree with Lt.Crunch. I think you're the one that's making this argument black and white, not Donald Glover. And also, he addresses things critics say about the subjects of his raps in "Be Alone", which I'm sure you've heard if you really are a fan. Everyone's entitled to their opinions, and in my opinion, his 3 or 4 Tina Fey mentions in Culdesac was just a successful entertainer giving props to his mentor. Do you get on Kanye's ass for mentioning Jay-Z every couple of songs? I think it's just his way of thanking her, and the references to her fit well in his lines, so I guess I don't really agree with you on this one. Like I said, everyone's entitled to their opinion, so don't feel the need to cuss me out if you reply. Thanks.

  • Leor Galil

    Lt. Crunch: Obviously it wasn't a direct attack, and I apologize if I didn't make that any clearer. The review, which was for True/Slant, eventually got posted by some angry fan on the Childish Gambino fan page, which resulted in a ton of trolls overtaking the comments (not unlike this post... which was also posted on the Facebook page: ). And even though Glover's complaints weren't made directly at my review, I do know few media outlets posted a review of the mixtapes, and fewer made the same complaints that I did.

    Mr. Prion: As sincere as Glover's name-dropping of Fey is, it's nonetheless awkward as hell. At least, to me it certainly sounded awkward as hell. And just because he follows the same road as the many, many rappers who've given their mentors props, it doesn't justify it as a good element of a song. Sorry to disappoint you.

    And all other trolls who follow this link from the CG Facebook page: Thank you for reading.

  • Icey

    Yeah, so if people disagree with you, they're trolls? You're a fucking idiot.

  • Leor Galil

    "Icey": Nope, just people who unexpectedly find an article a month after it was published and make condescending comments like the one you posted. As I said throughout this comment board, people have their own opinions and that's fine. In fact, I even state m distaste for folks who force their opinions on someone else, so there's that, too. Nice assumption, "Icey."

  • Ryan

    Just on a curious note, what was your favorite track from Culdesac? That's his first mixtape I heard so I'm going backwards as of now and listening to his older stuff. Any specific tracks you recommend?

  • Leor Galil

    Hey Ryan,

    Sorry for the delay in my response. The one song I can put on repeat is "Do Ya Like." Yes, some of the lyrics have that mediocre, sophomoric quality that dragged the album down, but the energy of the track is hard to resist. Culdesac tends to operate at a fairly low energy, which is exactly the opposite of what I liked about the earlier Childish Gambino work I've listened to on repeat again and again. The energy on "Do Ya Like" is quite high, the hook is sick, and Glover's flow feeds off the beat in a way that isn't apparent in the other tracks. Glover has a bit of a tendency to trip over his own cadences/cram too many ideas into a verse, a mark of someone still learning the craft. (Not a bad thing necessarily, it's just a mark of a rapper that hasn't totally come to understand how far/fast/hard his or her spitting can go.) The song is tight, and even some of the easy lyrical drops go down as smooth as the more thoughtful, witty rhymes. But, that's just my fave.


  • Jokesrus

    Interesting perspective Leor, your opinion is your opinion. I generally prefer the more serious tone he took on Culdesac... his older stuff, to me anyway, was straight garbage. Couldn't stand it. But Culdesac brought him to a whole new level of maturity, not only in his rhyme schemes, but in himself.

    I place it on the level of the greats like "So Far Gone" by Drake and "A Kid Named Cudi" by Kid Cudi.

    The one thing that annoys the hell out of me is the fact he drops rappers names constantly! How many times is he going to mention Lil Wayne and Kanye in his tracks?