Childish Gambino is on a mission to reframe his image as a musician. He seems bored by the trite rapper-turned-actor narrative and dissatisfied with his role (or lack thereof) in Atlanta’s indie scene. With STN MTN, his DJ Drama certified Gangsta Grillz mixtape, he addressed the latter jacking the beats of the city’s validated personalities, both old and new—Ludacris and Future and K Camp, among others. He covered Usher’s “U Don’t Have To Call.” He poked fun at The Atrium nightclub. He did everything possible to brand himself an ATLien. He made himself right at home, both figuratively and ideologically, in the hub of modern Rap.
There’s another piece to the puzzle, though: his more adventurous self, which operates creatively outside the realm of his hometown’s norms. When at his most imaginative, Gambino is secluded to his own weird world, and with his latest EP he bends the perception of his art to fit that mold using a romantic getaway to tropical paradise as the backdrop. On Kauai, Childish Gambino finds himself on an island both literally and metaphorically. He puts to bed the notion that he should be limited to rapping once and for all. Accompanied by soliloquies from Jaden Smith, Gambino creates a cohesive listening experience that embodies the vastness of his creative vision while exhibiting his perhaps underutilized R&B prowess.
Kauai peruses Childish Gambino’s more ambitious side. It is the first of his releases to feature more singing than rapping, and he sings with real purpose. The EP’s songs channel various iterations of Michael Jackson, Prince, and D’Angelo fashioning a modern sound out of bits and pieces of the sounds of the past. The production is mostly wavy and atmospheric generating a serene, almost scenic feel. He uses the warm vibe to showcase his surprisingly rangy register, and explores its reach to croon about various fast-burning flings and short-term relationships.
These hook-ups are the catalysts for most of his best work, not just as a vocalist, but also as a musician. When he gets the chemistry just right, Gambino is a rather proficient song maker—as displayed by Because The Internet’s “3005,” which slithered into urban radio this year going gold and generating enough buzz to merit a new instrumental mix on the EP. On Kauai he peaks in spurts. “Retro [Rough]” is a do-over of “Love Is Crazy” from his first mixtape, 2008’s Sick Boi, and it is a terrific gauge of how much he’s grown: his writing is much tighter and less punch reliant, and he successfully takes over hook duty from the previously straining Eugene Cordero. He puts it all together for “The Palisades,” the slinky synth guitar riff-driven moan that debates modern romance in contradictions. “Love don’t really happen,” he argues in the chorus seconds after pondering togetherness. On the chime-y, groovy “Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good)” he waxes poetic about sex in generic Pop clichés, and its fun translates with each passing note.
Fun isn’t a word you can always use to describe Childish Gambino’s music, but Kauai does an admirable job putting raw feelings before agendas or aesthetics, and it is easy to enjoy as a result. There are moments where it ceases to be that: the faux Neo Soul of “Poke” paired with a particularly average verse from Steve G. Lover does bore, but it is among the minor blips on an otherwise solid EP.