Random Thoughts 42: A Childish Gambino/KYLE Comparison
Random Thoughts is a new thing I'm trying for JiH, where I write a feature length article about...whatever I feel like, slap a (non-consecutive) number on it and let you guys read it. I get to develop my writing a bit more, you get to read more of my "amazing" work. Win-win, right?
I wanna talk about KYLE for a bit. An inductee into the 2017 XXL Freshman class, KYLE is the first artist I've been a major fan of before the XXL Freshman List actually dropped since 2014 inducted Chance the Rapper. Forever in search of new artists, I was listening to his feature on a Hoodie Allen mixtape and gave his album Smyle a try, and I was sold by the album’s first song, The Force.
Since then I've become an avid fan, listening to everything from his Beautiful Loser mixtape to all his newer, album-less singles. I've come to describe him as Childish Gambino without the angst or constantly wondering whether he belongs in the rap game. Initially, I thought all of that could be attributed to him growing up on the more lax West Coast--where even the gansta rappers are known to make party and chill music alongside their "shoot it out with the cops then shoot up the news van" songs.
But the more I thought about the analogy, the more I realized it was much deeper than that. KYLE and Gambino really do remind me of one another--from both being geeky guys who like to rap that also happen to be really boastful, which wasn't quite the case when all the white kids were doing nerdcore rap back in the early 2000's. They also both have a habit of crooning over their records to various levels of success, and although Drake does that a lot it's not quite as common as you'd think amongst other rappers, and there's also the same kind of "can he really rap" feel that Gambino had when he first popped onto the scene during that period from I Am Not a Rapper up to Camp. It's the semi-corny, nerdy analogies balanced by rock-solid flows and the constant sense of improvement from project to project. In the same way that Gambino's writing improved from Culdesac to Camp, the KYLE on Beautiful Loser isn't on the same level as the one from SMYLE, and I'd argue since the 2015 project he's grown even more. In both cases, whatever doubts you think you have about the rappers is allayed by the fact that they keep getting better.
But let's focus on their differences for a moment, because I think those speak to how society's vastly changed in the time it took both of them to get popping.
Going as far back as 2010's "I Am Not a Rapper" project we could hear the pathos in Gambino's life. He rapped about being bullied and people considering him uncool. Culdesac had two completely different odes to a mystery woman, one which even connected to his 2011 EP talked about how it felt to be cheated on and dumped by a girl you loved. He would switch from braggadocio to the type of moody music you'd expect on an R&B project at the drop of a hat, almost effortlessly. This was a man who'd gone through shit, and no matter how often he talked about all the women he'd slept with, the money he made, or how he was talented at...well...everything, you knew that was just to cover up the pain from the times he'd lost.
And at the core of it all was one central theme: he was an outsider. Whether it was because he was the nerdy black kid who didn't fit in with all the other black kids ("98 test score in my Thundercat folder"), or because the nerdy white kids wouldn't accept him because nerdy as he was he still wasn't white ("lovingwhite dudes who call me white and then try to hate, when I wasn't white enoughto use your pool when I was 8"). Ultimately it came down to not being accepted no matter where he went ("and every black "you're not black enough" is a white "you're all the same"), and the same way poor people who get rich spend money until they realize they aren't poor, you could hear Gambino trying to prove to himself that he'd done enough to be worthy of being a rapper in his music. This isn't hidden--his goals were obvious from early on. ("I wanna go inside the club with no gold piece, and walk in with noI.D. and No I.D.).
But the doubt Donald Glover all-too-frequently expressed in his music is almost absent in KYLE's. If Gambino's Batman--a vulnerable man beneath the cool suits and gadgets who can seemingly do everything, then KYLE is Superman: fucking bulletproof. It's not that he didn't experience some of the same kind of mocking, it's just that for reasons I'll get into later, it didn't affect him. ("Ever since I was thirteen/I been surrounded by hurt dreams/And fake niggas who threw shots, but none of that shit could hurt me.") One of the biggest complaints about Donald Glover's early music is the rampant misogyny/the fact that all he ever rapped about was his dick--but KYLE's music takes a different bent. There aren't whole songs about random one-night stands with girls and broken relationships--it's commitment and love anthems. ("I don't got no thotties but I know my bitch is FINE tho.") The closest you get to him rapping about being a casanova type is the hilarious Don't Wanna Fall in Love, which is still about him fucking up relationships because he doesn't want to get close. Even the references are different--Gambino needed to be taken seriously so badly that his nerdy references were kept fairly generic, but KYLE will get super specific, rapping about Pokemon, Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed.* (Fuck a million views, needed views, somewhere floating like I'm Mewtwo.)
Now its important to note that between the two of them, there's an entire decade of age difference--Gambino was born in '83, while KYLE was in '93. By the time KYLE was born Gambino was already in 5th grade. As many who grew up in the 80's and most of the 90's can attest, being geeky was still very much NOT cool. Anime was very much "that weird cartoon shit" that people insisted was only for little children, because Dragon Ball Z hadn't yet infected the consciousness of young kids, while video games hadn't yet hit the popularity it would in the early 2000's with the launch of the Playstation 2 and Grand Theft Auto--thy were still these weird things you played in 1st through 3rd grade and you were supposed to "grow out of". And in the 90's we're 10-20 years away from the mainstream acceptance of comic books that came with the popularization of superheroes that the Marvel Cinematic Universe brought. In short: in the 90's, no matter what geeky avenue you might imagine turning to, it's not popular and its going to get you bullied. As much as I wax nostalgic on the 90's, this is all stuff I can't dispute.
And as much as I dislike the 2000's, by then the script had been flipped. If you weren't watching DBZ you were missing out. If you didn't own an Xbox or a PS2 you weren't cool ("What do you mean you haven't played Halo/GTA??"). Being nerdy goes from being a thing that you don't just do in silence while you silently hope that just one person is into the same shit as you, but its became a thing that you can do and make friends, which instantly flips the game. Skip ahead to the early 2010's and there are people having arguments over how much geeky shit you have to do/watch/play before you're considered a real geek.
No matter how you feel about that particular discussion, can we all accept how insane that is? Twenty years prior doing anything geeky instantly got you the label--now there's enough geek-related stuff that's mainstream we can actually have a conversation about how much nerdy shit you can consume before people will accept you? Gatekeeping's a shitty practice, but that we've gained such wide acceptance its a concern at all is mind-blowing. And I feel like that's the difference between a KYLE and people of his age group and Gambino's: it's being mocked for what makes you different versus being celebrated for our differences, or at least being accepted and allowed to thrive on your own without fear of being bullied or mocked.
And you can say that since Gambino’s music carries such pain and sadness that it’s superior, but I’m not sure I buy that. I can’t think of anyone who only listens to music when they’re sad, or even when they’re happy. Music is the expression of the human spirit in song, and there’s no one dominant emotion that you could or should consider as “better” than another. I listen to Gambino’s music when I’m feeling reflective or mellow (and other cases, since he’s not *all* depressing shit), while I listen to KYLE when I’m feeling untouchable or want to exude that aura. In any case, I’m proud to see the young guy come up, and I hope there’s as many big things in his future as there seem to be in Gambino’s.
*Yeah its casual shit but shut up.