Review: Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”

Donald Glover makes like his stage name and takes a gambit on “Awaken, My Love!”, a funky, heavy (to the point of cumbersome), and eerie collection that rebels in all directions in an unabashed display of anguish and homage.
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There’s a line from Santigold’s genre mashing, self-titled debut where featured MC, Spank Rock makes the assertion “Just know I’m doing something you ain’t/And that’s plain.” In the case of Santi White, she very much was, drawing together punk, hip-hop and new wave in a fashion that felt both familiar yet fresh. The delivery of such a line in a song titled “Shove It” hammers the point home, that White couldn’t care less of your opinion because it doesn’t match what she has to say.

Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, is now doing something that’s plainly not him, per se, and shoves it in your face. It’s not all that familiar, it’s fresh in some ways, and it’s really frenzied.

In the past year, Glover hosted his own festival, released a hit show, and now, created an album entirely outside of his usual hip-hop background. Where his last full LP Because the Internet showcased a snarky, self-aware MC with a tongue sharpened by the worldwide web, Glover’s latest album abandons that persona for agonized funk howler whose perspective is jaded by the world itself. Though a title like “Awaken, My Love!” suggests a warm rise-and-shine, the subject here is jolted awake in a manner less tenderly than expected. Instead of emerging well-rested from a slumber, Glover finds himself ensnared within real-life nightmares that torment him throughout the project.

The clean comedown of 2015’s “Sober” is nowhere to be found, but ironies still shine brightly throughout this material; after all, Glover is a comedian as well. The resulting tracks undoubtedly are founded in funk and psychedelia, but that internet kid from 2013 still shows through in Awaken’s omnivorous stimuli. The new-age funk sensibility of Thundercat is present here, coming through cool and composed on “Redbone” with its easy-going eight-note drumline and digitized, pitched vocals. Though it sounds of genres past, it glistens with the sheen of 21st century influence and production glossed over it.

Glover’s own vocal range, like his range of talents, deserves recognition for its variety and miscellaneous uses. Though he growls and hollers on “Me and Your Mama”, he lifts into a Ceelo Green-like falsetto in “Terrified”, both of which are equally believable. Moreover, his acting prowess comes in handy on “Zombies”, his inflection convincingly frightened yet also a bit comical, a double entendre that does recall the comedic Gambino of old. Conversely, “California” adopts an auto-tuned Calypso inflection that actually sounds like too much of a joke to not wince at. But on “Boogieman” and “Baby Boy”, his voice reaches points of androgyny that lend an entire level of subversion to this music. On the latter track especially, though Glover sings as a father to his son, it just as easily could be an anguished mother in ruins over her pride and joy’s absence. Glover has not just grown up, he’s grown more curious, something that shouldn’t be unexpected to anyone who’s heard his prior material.

Pulling himself out of the digital into the tangible also affected the production behind “Awaken, My Love!”, a funky, unhurried jam session that acts as the rolling caravan hosting Glover’s varied voices. Truly, though, the most consistently positive aspects of Awaken… lie in its production and arrangements, which can overshadow Glover in both span and sound. On “Terrified”, a deep baseline and shrill drone set the track’s menacing tone, which eventually dissolves into a lone keyboard that rides on the whispers of a wind in the background. The aforementioned “California” survives its insincere vocal delivery with the help of a backdrop of playful keyboards and wood whistles. Throughout multiple tracks, groups of voices harmonize, haunt, and groove in the background, at times lending a gospel feel (“Have Some Love”) while at others a more cinematic one (“Zombies”).

Moreover, the penultimate track “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” does feature a fantastic electric riff and a lovely choir but doesn’t feature Glover at all, which, to be honest, is a letdown considering how magnetic a personality he is. One isn’t buying a Gambino record to hear the studio’s flourishes, they want a glimpse into Glover’s vast and oftentimes vulgar mind.

“Awaken, My Love!” harbors an underlying sense of unease, occasionally breaking through in instrumental spurts. It is a slow march to the finale, where one finds Glover exhausted but not without faith. In the same way Pandora’s actions also release hope after a parade of plagues, Awaken… finishes not with a final horror but a lasting optimism. “Stand Tall” plays in the feel-good self-assurance of Chance The Rapper, reveling in one’s resilience while not downplaying their struggle (“fists have fallen to our side”). It begs for you to look at and love yourself just a little harder, which Glover hopes will make you see “there’s more to you and me/there’s more than you can see.” As if to hammer this point home, “Stand Tall” utilizes instruments (a vivid flute) and vocal effects (a full T-Pain-level auto-tune) not seen until this point in the LP, furthering exhibiting that unpredictability that led someone who’s typically an MC to write an agonized funk-rock record that somehow finds light at the end of its dark journey.

Through its unpredictability, Awaken, My Love! begs you to ponder what will follow, from the next track, to the next year, to the next project Childish Gambino decides to take a bet on. It’s simultaneously daunting, exhausting, terrifying, all at the same time. It’s all a lot to take in, with not a whole lot of the Gambino we are familiar with to help wash it down. But this record was not meant to be swallowed easily; it’s more a punch to the gut. It may be a bit unexpected, Glover going funky, but this switch feels more apt than some other impending “crossovers” by other musicians on the horizon. In less capable hands, Awaken, My Love! would be a mess. In Glover’s multifaceted fingers, it’s just fine. C PLUS