Childish Gambino has come a long way from the actor who seemed to be rapping as a lark. We had no way to know whether or not to take Donald Glover seriously – after all his rap handle came from the Glover was serious about his rap even if his moniker was an afterthought, and after he left NBC’s “Community” he dropped his most sophisticated album to date with “Because the Internet.”

At this point I don’t believe Glover will give up either acting or rapping, as he can flip and do one when he’s not busy with the other. It’s not as though he even has to give up recording if he’s on the set of a sitcom – he can self-produce tracks when necessary and it’s easy enough to get beats from producers via Dropbox without having to book studio time. Likewise given how in demand he is as an actor, he certainly has enough bank that he could afford to fly somewhere to do a show, then come right back and be on the set the next day. If Glover wants to juggle, we’re certainly not going to hate on the hustle. He might just handle that s#%! better than Cube or Will ever did.

Speaking of handling his business, Gambino has taken an unusual approach to his October return to hip-hop. “STN MTN” is available as a free mixtape with some bonus tracks from his retail release, and “Kauai” is available at retail for a relatively low $6.99 – although it’s only seven tracks deep and one is a remix from “Because the Internet.” How does one interpret this dual release? A fair assessment seems to be that Glover is encouraging you to sample the free mixtape and if you like it buy his EP to show your support. Another interpretation would be that if you were going to buy the EP anyway, the “STN MTN” mixtape is a free bonus/loyalty reward to thank his fans.

Whatever his motivation it’s unlikely he got a track like “All Y’all” from Timbaland for free, so giving away a Timbo produced track on “STN MTN” is a bit of a thank you in itself.

“How you hotter than me? You ain’t got no hits
You just got a hot feature
Bare soul/sole on the track so my feet hurt
Do some research
Know my origin
I’m the new black – f#%! oranges!”

One has to wonder if Yahoo! will appreciate the reference to the Netflix exclusive “Orange Is the New Black” when they just commissioned an exclusive sixth season of “Community,” but since Glover is no longer on the show he’d probably just laugh if they got mad. That’s one of the parts of Gambino that makes him enjoyable as an emcee – an ability to laugh at himself and his fame that rappers trying too hard to be too hard don’t have. It’s the reason he can do flippant tracks like “F@%$! Given,” because he doesn’t have to give ANY to be successful. The track plays like either a parody of or a tribute to the drill-hop style and the sing-song hip-hop of Future – and it’s quite possible that it’s both.

Gambino doesn’t need nor appear to want a lot of all-star cameos on this double release, though he does offer a surprise on “Kauai” when fellow actor Jaden Smith guests on two tracks (“Pop Thieves” and “Late Night in Kauai”). The experiments are interesting throughout – Glover does a capable imitation of Frank Ocean on “U Don’t Have to Call,” and splits one song into three different shots with three different beats twice. Being that happens on the mixtape half though, it shouldn’t be overly surprising that Luda’s “Southern Hospitality” is one of the beats, or that Future’s “Move That Dope” is another.

There’s a wistful note to “STN MTN” in that Glover celebrates the city of Atlanta throughout, a place he clearly adopted as home while attending the DeKalb School of the Arts, but he also names it after a place and a memorial more closely associated with the Confederacy and the Klan. That yin and yang is much like Glover’s career – he never forgets his artistic roots on either side, and the duality of “Kauai” extends the metaphor further by having Gambino explore a vacation spot far away from Atlanta’s mix of black pride and Southern inhospitality.

On “Pop Thieves” you can literally hear the seagulls chirping, as Gambino once again explores his increasing penchant for crooning. So long as he doesn’t half-ass it I’m not going to have anything against it, though I won’t front like I wouldn’t rather have him rapping. Whether you like it or not though Glover has five words for you: “These haters can’t say s#%!.” Fair enough. It’s the self-confidence that Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover has that makes his continued journeys through both Hollywood and hip-hop successful. So long as he believes he achieves no matter what he chooses to do.

Childish Gambino :: STN MTN/Kauai
7Overall Score