Childish Gambino Awakens Funk/Soul vibe in “Awaken, My Love!”
After a whirlwind few years, Donald Glover’s musical alias Childish Gambino (Troy Barnes, 30 Rock writer, stand up comic, the future Lando Calrissian) has released yet another jaw-dropping album. “Awaken, My Love!” is his third studio album (he’s also had a few EPs and mixtapes). Whereas Camp and Because The Internet were somewhat more traditional hip hop albums (they still had Glover’s stamp of differentness), “Awaken, My Love!” is a soul/funk album through and through. And even though those genres sound outdated and old-fashioned, the album is perfect for it’s era. And it’s profoundly passionate and personal.
The first single, “Me and Your Mama,” signaled to us that this wasn’t going to be a standard hip hop album. A cross between Pink Floyd, James Brown, and Prince, the first track is a unique three-part opener. An R&B slow jam backs a gospel-style female chorus. Elements of trap start infiltrating the bassline. Then, two minutes in, a Vincent Price-esque laugh intros Gambino’s incredibly passionate vocals (“You know that I love you!/So let me into your heart!”). After his amazing vocal section, a Pink Floyd-ian synth outro leads us into the rest of the album. And what an album it is.
“Have Some Love” features a mesh between old-school funk, a seriously groovy rhythm section, some Gorillaz-esque guitar strumming, and an infectiously cheerful gospel chorus hook (“Have a word for your brother/have some time for one another/really love one another/it’s so hard to find”). Gambino’s vocals oscillate between 70s funk, strained low-key almost-rapping (for the verses), and a second half that’s somehow a glittering funk breakdown with twinges of Justin Timberlake.
There’s twinges of everything in this album. It’s hard to pin anything down, and that’s wonderful. “Boogieman” and “Zombies” feel like they should be 30 Rock parody songs (“Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” anyone?), but behind the melodramatic and silly-sounding lyrics, there’s a deeper message. As is normal for Childish Gambino. “Zombies” calls out our often zombie-like culture (“they can smell your money/and they want your soul” and “we’re eating you for profit/there is no way to stop it”) all the while using a style that feels like a future Daft Punk sample. It’s hard to nail down, and I think that’s his point. His style is completely his own.
A sexy slick slap bass intro brings us to the second single, “Redbone.” Slightly pitched up vocals swirl into oozy, gauzy goodness that encompasses just how different this album is from Camp and Because the Internet. Prince’s slow groove style leaks through this track especially. The slap/synth bass and Gambino’s processed vocals are showcased well.
And then, after a few serious songs in a row, we get the goofy “California.” The actual lyrics are about living in, you guessed it, California, and reference everything from social media to weed. But the vocals are hyper digitized and strained. The instrumentation (glockenspiel, carnival organ, etc.) sounds right out of the TV show Community, which is probably because Gambino’s producer, Ludwig Göransson, wrote the music for that show.
It’s not often I can identify with a famous rapper/actor, but boy does “Baby Boy” speak to me. I recently became a father too, and Gambino’s song to his son is fantastic. Intensely personal (and lovely sounding; a Hammond B3 organ and a thin 80s-style electric guitar duel throughout the track) and genuine, “Baby Boy” details his excitement, love, and doubts about becoming a father. And the last spoken section nails it: “There was a time before you/And there will be a time after you/Though these bodies are not our own/Walk tall, little one, walk tall/Let me hold you, let me hold you.” Gambino is known for his honesty and transparency, and for good reason. Art comes from experience.
Then we come to it. My personal favorite track on the album. The track no one expected: an instrumental soul/funk song from a rap artist. “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” is a hell of a title, and boy does the track live up to it. A sexy funk wah guitar, a gospel-style chorus, even more glockenspiel, and a groove that would make the most straight-laced grandma get down like a stank-faced bass player.
“Stand Tall” rounds out this unexpected album in a solid way. Gambino attributes the strong positive message to his parents: “Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall/if you are strong you cannot fall/there is a voice inside us all/so smile when you can, when you can.” The passionate vocals feel personal (“There is more out there/somebody cares ’bout you/I do.”) The 70s disco flute and funky chorus blend with modern auto-tune (used sparingly, don’t worry) and finishes out with an R&B groove. A weird combo, to be sure.
A weird combo. That’s what “Awaken, My Love!” truly is. A combination of disparate styles, instruments, topics, vocalists, messages, and feelings. And that’s what makes a human a human: uniqueness. Things that shouldn’t go together forming one thing that somehow works. Gambino’s always been a raw, personal artist. His intense honesty has made some balk. His acting career seems to bounce off his musical career. His hairstyles can be ridiculous. But he’s a human and he’s acting like a human in his music.
Personally, I like funk and R&B more than hip hop, so I like “Awaken, My Love!” more than his other albums. But there’s something all three albums have: personality. All three albums feature Donald Glover as Donald Glover. Sometimes that’s heavy-duty hip hop. Sometimes that’s hilarious stories from his childhood. Sometimes that’s funk. We just get to watch and listen. We can always sense passion in a project. That’s why processed corporate art, whether it’s literal hotel art or the latest unpalatable pop music, is so abhorrent to us. We prefer local coffee to Folgers. We prefer a local music shop (wink wink) to Best Buy. We prefer something made with love.
So sit down and truly listen to “Awaken, My Love!” You’ll get to enjoy true passion while you groove.