Even if you aren’t familiar with Donald Glover as a musician, you probably know him from something else. Glover, who makes music under the name Childish Gambino (which he got from the infamous Wu-Tang Name Generator as a joke), is a little bit of everything. Along with being a musician, he is a stand-up comic, a producer, a director, and an actor on shows like “30 Rock” (2006-2013) and “Atlanta” (2016-present). He stole the screen in “The Martian” (2015) as the sarcastic MIT student who solves the problem no one at NASA could and will grace us with his presence yet again in the new Han Solo prequel.
His music, both critically acclaimed and completely roasted (his album “Camp” (2011) received a 1.6 in a “Pitchfork” review––the lowest score they gave out that year), is known to be rap. Therefore, it was more than a little bit surprising when he released his new album, “Awaken, My Love!” (2016), without literally any rap on it. Instead, the album explores an entirely different world: that of funk, soul, and rhythm and blues. It sounds like the ‘70s at night—all of the heart and none of the ballad—and for his fans, it’s definitely different.
The album, which can best be described as a haunted house distortion of ‘70s discotech, is slightly psychotic and a little bit homicidal. The voices and instruments give you a nostalgia for an era that neither his main audience nor Glover himself actually took part in, but it is still intelligent, well-balanced, and effervescent. It has the brilliance that enticed me to his music in the first place. It’s just a shocking split from what his fans were expecting.
In “Awaken, My Love!” Gambino spikes between moods very quickly. He runs straight from the cheerful, Caribbean-sounding “California” to the completely horrifying “Terrified,” where he shows off lyrical brilliance against a bass-heavy, twinkling, atmospheric background. Lines like “Please don’t find me rude/But I don’t eat fast food/So don’t run too fast,” send anyone who’s ever been followed on the street shivering. Guest vocalist JD McCrary’s half-singing, half-screaming pleads make everyone want to run to her aid. And I didn’t know the McDonald’s jingle could be sung in a creepy way until I heard Gambino do it.
The album as a whole has an extremely creepy feel to it. Donald Glover figured out how to turn a psychological thriller into music, and it’s effective. To achieve this, he uses everything from evil laughter, to outright screaming––like bloody-intestines-pulled-out-of-your-abdominal-cavity-and-fed-to-subway-rats screams. Even the cover art, with the neon glow and the slightly deranged-looking African mask, is discomforting.
“Zombies” is one of the best examples of this. The line, “You can feel them breathing/Breathing down your spine” pairs with an almost undetectable breath in the background. A delicate piano gives it an almost hypnotizing mood. All this is paired with Kari Faux singing on loop, “We’re coming out to get you/We’re oh so glad we met you/We’re eating you for profit/There is no way to stop it” with that same smiling horror movie villainess tone that gives so many of us nightmares.
Throughout the album, he teases the classic voices of the 1970s. He’ll change his voice to something high and trilling to give off a very “Saturday Night Fever” quality or go completely gravely for a spookier, sexier tone. It shows range in his voice, as well as a fair amount of humor. His voice changing is almost evocative of doing impressions as a stand-up comedian.
Lyrically, Gambino is searching for ground in a genre that is new to him. His lyrics in “Awaken, My Love!” don’t have the same cleverness as they do in his rap music, but they are still charming, and beautiful at times. “Stand Tall” is especially poetic, with lines like “I feel like a child, so young and new in ‘92, I listen/To what my father said,” that threaten to make you melt.
Even so, they don’t have the same variety. Instead of spitting out 20 different couplets that either hit or miss, he’ll repeat the same twisted line over and over, like in “Redbone,” when he loops the line “So stay woke/They goin’ find you/Goin’ catch you sleepin’.” Songs like these flow well, but can get boring fast.
The best thing about “Awaken, My Love!” however, is the instruments. From the comforting march of the drums to the intentional cacophony without dissonance that he assembles for “Riot,” Gambino masters this element, with the help of long time collaborator Ludwig Göransson and 10 other collaborators.
In his new album, Gambino lets the music speak for itself, often leaving the instrumentals all on their own and then ducking back in with trippy vocals just to make sure you’re listening or dedicating an entire song to the instruments, like “The Night Me and Your Mama Met.”
This song, which, with the ethereal harmony of what might be a church choir, creates an entire memory. It is what a gorgeous stranger on the beach at dusk looks like. It’s what perfectly smooth skin feels like under soft fingertips. It’s the way that pleasure and twinge of nostalgia aches. And it’s played on the ukulele.
Especially prominent is the adaptive guitar that flows and ebbs all over the album, from the chilling grooves, to the twanging, solos, to an aggressive, shredded ambiance. In “Awaken, My Love!,” Gambino plays with the sounds of the ‘70s and with the twinkly, almost magical touch of modern electronic, and this is new. Where before, the music often left something to be desired, Gambino keeps the focus on the sound itself, carefully walking the line between instrumental complexity and chaos.
Gambino also plays with quietness in this album, taking long pauses and toying with silence. In “Stand Tall,” moments of total silence let you sit with the emotional heart of the album, and lyrics like “Smile when you can” twist between the flute and the bass guitar. It takes what music used to avoid and turns it into a meditation. It makes you look up from what you were doing because of a lack of noise instead of a surprising one. It makes you conscious again.
But I’m biased––while most other critics reviewed the album positively within the context of a backhanded roast of his previous work, I actually love the rest of his stuff. So, a presumptuous white girl’s defense of Gambino’s rap music: No, it’s not perfect. Yes, his lyrics are at times messy, the messages are contradictory and the beat are off by a bit. But this is what is so attractive about it. The music itself sounds like your closest friends. It is unafraid of its awkwardness and is at the same time, painfully self-conscious. It bobs in the silly and the wise, the raging and the relaxed, the narcissistic and the self-depreciative.
Glover himself stated in an interview with radio DJ Peter Rosenberg that “Rap is done,” which implies that he won’t be returning to the genre, as he allegedly didn’t even want to rap for his previous album, “Because the Internet,” (2013) and did it because of pressure. This, to a fan of his rap music (however hated it is), is disappointing, but according to Glover, “It’s not doing the social work it’s supposed to do anymore.”
According to Gambino, rap music was intended as a part of a social movement—like the soundtrack to racial activism. But it’s moved beyond that, having become labeled, commercialized, and sold to the masses like junk food. This is understandable, though I don’t know that I agree.
But even outside of rap, “Awaken, My Love!” stands testament to the fact that Glover’s music, no matter what genre, continues to be interesting and complex. Because of this, I am still happy to listen to Gambino’s music and to what is produced by the artists around him as he pursues new genres in order to make art of the world as he finds it.