Childish Gambino Gets Far Out Funky on ‘Awaken, My Love!’
This year, the actor Donald Glover has been showing his face much more than his alter ego Childish Gambino. Glover has been busy giving fans the critically acclaimed 10-episode dramedy Atlanta this fall. On the music side, he released the virtual reality smartphone app Pharos and performed in a desert while embracing his inner warrior. Atlanta even sparked the conversation about a solid, new African-American TV renaissance. The 33-year-old Atlanta native was moving on the creative tip to obvious achievement but his beloved musical other self was unequivocally silent for the better part of the year.
2014 was the last time Childish Gambino released a full project in the form of the DJ Drama-hosted mixtape, STN MTN/Kauai. The project was both a showcase of his rhyming skills and songwriting capabilities; a perfect representation of Childish’s musical prowess. So when it was announced that Donald would be reprising his Wu-Tang Clan name generator-created alias for a brand new album, "Awaken, My Love!," fans thought more of the same, solid bars and strongly produced music would be on the way. However, puzzlingly enough, the final product is far from typical.
"Awaken, My Love!" is in fact more of a funky, progressive rock album than anything else. Childish has very clearly hung up his rap hat on this one and decided to put on his experimental singing cloak. The experimentation is so full force that throughout the album there are often times where it's hard to tell if it’s actually Childish on the track. This is thanks to the outer space-like funk beats and distorted Auto-Tune fluctuations that lend themselves to almost every main vocal on a majority of the tracks. This renders his performance almost unrecognizable, but not to his detriment. Childish takes on the role of orchestrator rather than lead performer in attempts to remove the spotlight from one element and have the listener be immersed in a dreamy, musical soundscape.
This artsy experimenting leaves "Awaken, My Love!" ultimately polarizing though. On one hand, the songs are fresh, abstract and definitely a change of pace from anything happening in mainstream rap right now. But the other hand, fans looking for sweet 16s and rappity raps, won't feel the ode to Parliament Funkadelic.
“Redbone” and “California” are two songs that have such a groovy vibe that it’s hard not to two-step and hum along to Childish Gambino's description of love and lust on the West Coast. Simple choruses like, “She want to move to California/She musta fucking lost her mind/She want to move to California/It's hard to get you every time” and “But stay woke/Niggas creepin'/They gon' find you/Gon' catch you sleepin'” are radically easy to digest and enjoy given the heaps of unfamiliar baselines and bizarre song structures on tracks like “Zombies” and “Riot.” Those unique sounds can be attributed in large to Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson, who manages to mold classic 1970’s funk with a new-age psychedelic bounce. And although his contributions are hard to find on this, Vinylz gets credit for work on “Redbone.”
It’s hard to totally discredit the vintage efforts made on this project simply because of how strong his themes are. He poetically speaks about his newborn child on “Baby Boy,” shows brotherly appreciation on “Show Some Love” and masterfully breaks down a racially-charged double entendre with “Boogieman.” The latter is actually one of the best musical responses to the current race relations plaguing the U.S. Set over a deep rock riff, Childish sings out, “If you point a gun at my rising sun/Though we're not the one/But in the bounds of your mind/We have done the crime,” comparing the traditional nightmarish “boogeyman” to an African American “boogie” man.
Even with all its excessive instrumental breaks, the song puts a clever spin on Middle America’s stereotypical view of colored minority. These thematic elements aren’t easy to pick up on because of the hazy way they’re presented but after a few listens, it's clear how lyrically layered some of the songs actually are.
Childish Gambino gets definite props for pushing the envelope and refusing to operate within any genre confinements on this refreshing 49-minute trip through the funkadelic 1970s. While these blurred lines make this album a little hard to follow, "Awaken, My Love!" proves his versatility as a rapper turning over a new leaf.
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