I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve never really been a fan of Childish Gambino, the musical persona of actor/comedian/writer Donald Glover. His first album, “Camp,” was honestly pretty bad, and the follow-up “Because the Internet” was simply okay. His rapping was often corny, his flow jagged around the edges, but a nagging sense that this guy obviously has a talent. It just wasn’t being fully realized.
This year, though, his abilities have really begun to show. His comedy/drama tv show “Atlanta” about life in a rapper’s world, is one of the best new shows of the year, and showcases Glover moving on from his goofball style in “30 Rock” and “Community” into much more nuanced, topical and smart material. His latest album “Awaken, My Love!” is further proof of this.
This record is really something else. It’s not rap, which will immediately deter some folks, but rather funk, with hints of neo-psychedelia, reggae and R&B scattered throughout. The opener “Me and Your Mama” is a stellar highlight of the album’s consistently dark, dense, and fantastic production. When the long intro of bass, drums, and spacey instrumentals finally breaks, a guitar line kicks in. Glover roars “Let me into your heart” alongside a choral group, punctuating is lyrics with dissonant screams, a staple of the funk genre. He pulls it off, and it’s really quite impressive.
On the following tracks “Have Some Love” and “Boogieman,” Glover is noticeably borrowing from the band Funkadelic, especially the classic record “Maggot Brain” (even the cover is a homage). The groovy bass, guitar lines, and communal choruses all sound familiar, but sound modern enough to stand alone. The same is similar of “Redbone” a standout jam where Glover is absolutely channeling Prince with some high vocal effects over some smooth-as-butter keyboard and bass.
The specific homages end there however, and latter half takes on its own, even weirder path. The track “California” is a bizarre, if strangely catchy and infectious, reggae sort of beast with a slew of exotic instrumentals. “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” features none of Glover’s vocals, but is a gorgeous, absorbing instrumental. The closer “Stand Tall” begins as a ballad about following dreams before busting into a cacophony of voices and instruments before ending abruptly.
“Awaken, My Love” is a fascinating work. It doesn’t always work, as is usually the case for experimental records, and is occasionally messy. “Zombies” is a somewhat enjoyable, but corny track, some of the songs run a little long, and in some places, however enjoyable the music may be, it’s all over the place stylistically, and it’s not really clear what Glover wants to achieve. The overall effect though, is a success. Childish Gambino wanted to do something completely different from anything he’s ever done, and he does. And, for the most part, it’s great. It’ll divide people I’m sure, but that’s to be expected. It’s cemented me as a fan, however, and has me excited whatever he shoots for next.