Childish Gambino is unpredictable. When you listen to Rick Ross, you know exactly what you’re getting. I’m a Ross fan, but when it comes to putting out music, he follows a paint-by-numbers strategy, however lushly produced and energized it is.
Gambino, on the other hand, has metamorphosed more in the last three years than most artists do in their entire careers. Fans thought they had Donald Glover figured out by the time “Camp,” his debut studio album, came around on the same day as the second album by an artist he’s often scrutinized in relation to: Drake. Gambino responded to the positive reception with one muddled but captivating mixtape, “Royalty,” full of an onslaught of features and producers, a jarring assortment of styles sequenced one after the other, and Tiny Fey one-upping Diddy on his rant game.
One rightly goes into “STN MTN/Kauai,” Gambino’s latest project, with no idea what to expect, based on both his past discography and the rollout of this particular body of work. Shrouded in mystery up to its random moment of distribution, the music is split into two parts: the mixtape “STN MTN” and the EP “Kauai.” The former represents a hip-hop dream, whereas the latter is the moment he wakes up, caught in all the pleasures and pitfalls of love. The music confirms these concepts through Gambino and Jaden Smith’s (yup, Will Smith’s son’s) interludes of speech and spoken word, which contribute a dreamy haze and numbing relaxation to the two sections respectively.
You’re given no chance to mistake “STN MTN” for anything but a mixtape with the opening track, an introduction complete with snippets of influential Atlanta songs and the always loud DJ Drama running back Gambino’s verse over Ludacris’ “Southern Hospitality.” This is a mixtape, albeit one characterized and carried by the rapper behind it, who lends his creative rhymes in a way reminiscent of Lil Wayne in his prime. The entire tape can be seen as a dedication to Weezy, from the wacky spins on familiar subject matters to the final track, a freestyle over Wayne’s classic “Go DJ,” culminating in a few hundred shout-outs to the DJs in Gambino’s life.
Gambino plays with all of the tropes of current Atlanta hip-hop, but now what felt like a drunken and awkward mocking of the style on “Royalty” has become another seamless transition for the artist whose last album contained raps over thumping electro beats.
The imitation jabs can be immediately nullified by the amount of genuine singing that takes place over these trap beats, with showcases such as “No Fucks Given” and “Money Baby” proving that this is anything but an attempt to mimic Future, Young Thug or their contemporaries. The features on the tape are all in good fun but unnecessary, adding funny lines here and there on “No Small Talk” and “AssShots” yet giving no solid payoff for remaining invested after Gambino vanishes. The production is impeccable and surprising considering the niche Gambino is representing with this section, and the rapper makes it a priority to distinguish one verse from the next, doing everything from vocal DJ cuts to double time to a brief showing of the Migos flow.
The highlight of “STN MTN,” “U Don’t Have to Call,” curiously stands out amongst the other songs, with Gambino interpolating an Usher classic and performing a spoken word reminiscent of “Camp” outro “That Power” over a gorgeous beat that you could convince yourself Kanye produced in 2004. While this song and other highlight “Candler Road” include the most introspective, serious and original moments on the tape, one is charmed by details such as the hysterical “Atrium” interlude that cuts into radio stations and concert promoters, as well as the Young Scooter-featured “Let Your Hair Blow.”
After Gambino lives out his Gangsta Grillz fantasy, he brings us to Kauai for a complete change of pace, a vibrant collective soundscape that conjures up images of Michael Jackson meeting Timberlake on a tropical island. “Sober,” the EP’s first song, is also its most full and rewarding number, establishing the dominance and pure versatility of Gambino’s singing voice, setting the tone for the following songs. “The Palisades” is the other big winner, as Gambino acknowledges his knack for crafting one catchy melody after another with little effort.
Judging the music you receive by clicking your mouse, however, “STN MTN/Kauai” is a welcome, if unfinished, body of work. It’s a taste of the distant past, of the alternative present and of what’s to come, a showcase for the number of hats Gambino wears in all media, but one that skimps on effort in varying departments throughout, sometimes in lyrics in the earlier songs on “STN MTN” and other instances in song development, evident in the constant beat changes on the mixtape and the incomplete, occasionally empty feeling that the EP gives off. One piece of the project is not dependent on the other, with each meant to be appreciated and criticized on its own, but perhaps the true meaning behind the odd pairing of the two is part of another secret Gambino is waiting for us to solve.