Formally Donald Glover, actor-turned-rapper Childish Gambino isn’t known for holding back. Whether he’s spitting goofy bars about his preference for Asian women or waxing lyrics about staring into the existential abyss, Gambino’s music has always been about doing what he loves—about being damn good at it. The Internet and fans went wild when Gambino dropped the mixtape/EP combo STN MTN/Kauai, released as a surprise in two parts on Oct. 2 and Oct. 3. He gave this online gift out for free and it is nothing, if not a continuation, of his effort to always tell his truth.
STN MTN/Kauai is a concept album in the same vein as his sophomore effort Because the Internet. This time, however, the album is split into two thematically and sonically distinct narratives.
The first half STN MTN is a tribute to Gambino’s birthplace of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Playing out a professed childhood fantasy, Gambino imagines what it would be like if he ran hip-hop in Atlanta. Starting with the sawing intensity of “Southern Hospitality,” Gambino spends the first 40 minutes of the album drawing on the music of his hometown and indulging in his gangster rap fantasy.
While it sounds like he’s having a lot of fun, most of the material on STN MTN is a little disappointing. Compared to some of his more disciplined and thoughtful hits, such as “3005” and “Zealots of Stockholm,” the first half of the album lacks Gambino’s usual substance. Aside from the standouts “Candler Road” and “U Don’t Have to Call”—the latter of which features a beautiful prose rap bordering on poetry—the first half of STN MTN wasn’t up to Gambino’s usual standards.
Thankfully, the second half Kauai more than makes up for the slack. Upon waking up from his dream of Atlanta, Gambino reflects on lost love to the calm tropical sounds of Hawaii. Backed by a score that seems half-rap and half-PBR&B––with spoken interludes from fellow Internet messiah Jaden Smith fulfilling the role of “The Boy” from Because the Internet screenplay––Gambino crafts the soulful and introspective kind of hip-hop we’ve come to expect from him, with lyricism that entertains us and gives us pause. Especially with tracks like “The Palisades,” “Late Night in Kauai” and the incandescent “Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good),” Gambino seems to have found the peace that he’s been struggling for, musically and thematically, in his last two albums.
All in all, STN MTN/Kauai is a relatively straightforward showcase for one of the most exciting rappers in the game today. Somewhere between the hardcore hip-hop of Atlanta and the paradisiacal beaches of Kauai, Hawaii Childish Gambino has found home.