"Awaken, My Love!"
2016 has been quite a year for Donald Glover. From writing and starring in the critically acclaimed television series “Atlanta,” to landing roles in films such as Spider-Man: Homecoming and the upcoming Han Solo Star Wars film, where he’s confirmed to play Lando Calrissian, Glover has been busy on-screen. Not to ignore his musical talents, he reprises his role as Childish Gambino to drop his third album “Awaken, My Love!” As Questlove said, this album is a “sucker punch” – just a very pleasant, painless one. Known for his witty and, at times, over-the-top punchlines, Gambino decided to leave all of that behind for a funkified, left-field adventure. The album draws inspiration from the 1970s, an era when groups like Funkadelic, The Spinners, and Sly and the Family Stone reigned supreme. The lush and vibrant music translated to the present gives this album a new level of depth that takes Gambino’s music to new heights.
The production on this album is really what sets it apart. By no means did Gambino reinvent the wheel here, but he was able to recreate a classic sound without coming off as a direct clone of his predecessors. Longtime collaborator Ludwig Goransson utilizes a mix of guitars, clavinets, synths, pianos, and drums in order to recreate the genuine, funky sound from the 70s while still maintaining some creative integrity. Vocally, Gambino plays very well to the production of the album. He weaves in and out of falsettos, howls, grainy crackles, and even cartoonish voices pretty successfully without ever overdoing it.
Although Gambino does a valiant effort to recreate a vintage sound, there are times where his efforts come up a little short. A prime example is the record “Zombies.” The song is a tale of caution regarding people trying to capitalize on others for personal gain. Gambino’s attempt to sound ghoulish at times sounds more like The Count from Sesame Street. Another example is the record “California.” While it may serve as a palate cleanser from the psychedelic, soul-infused odyssey, its quirkiness feels out of place with the rest of the album. The combination of Gambino’s auto-tuned voice along with the pseudo-calypso soundscape feels a little empty compared to the rest of the records on the album.
Even with its few shortcomings, “Awaken, My Love!” has bright spots that far exceed any of its drawbacks. It’s clear Gambino studied the legends that came before him and did his best to embody that p-funk soul on each track. Whether he’s doing his best George Clinton impression on records like “Boogieman,” or interpolating Bootsy Collins’ classic “I’d Rather be with You” on “Redbone,” Childish Gambino fully embraces the funk. More importantly, Gambino makes sure that this album is not just a copy and paste of the funk legends in which he drew inspiration. He ensures that he tells his own story. This is particularly evident on songs like “Baby Boy,” which seems to be an open letter from a father professing his love to his son, likely inspired by the recent birth of Glover’s own son. The album closes with “Stand Tall,” in which Gambino recounts what his parents have told him and uses it as fuel to pursue his dreams. “Keep on your dreams, keep standing tall/ If you are strong you cannot fall” is a phrase repeated throughout the song, serving as a reminder to never give up and create a resonating message.
“Awaken, My Love!” is a far-cry from the typical Gambino project, and that’s okay. It’s actually great. Although he is not the first rapper to depart from rap in favor of a psychedelic trip — think Andre 3000 in The Love Below — Gambino makes his exploration into the land of funk his own while acknowledging those that came before him. With vivid production and lyrics about self-awareness, love, and the current social climate, “Awaken, My Love!” is an exciting tripped-out adventure.