Childish Gambino - 'Awaken, My Love!' Album Review
It’s no secret that Donald Glover has had a very busy and successful 2016. He was cast in multi-million dollar grossing franchises, Spiderman and Star Wars, and held what he called a “concert experience” called Pharos at Joshua Tree National Park, where ticket holders were invited to camp at the California site and listen to Glover’s new album. Just days later, Glover’s highly anticipated FX program Atlanta premiered, garnering universal acclaim from critics, and seems to be very well on its way to getting some Emmy love. To top it all off, Glover achieved something more important than any of the aforementioned achievements: Donald Glover became a father.
A multilayered career spanning sketch comedy, writing, standup, acting, and music, the multi-talented Donald Glover has always managed to remain relevant in some capacity. He’s someone who’s clearly not afraid to divert routes. So naturally, after seven mixtapes, two studio albums and an EP focused on rapping and an R&B influenced EP, Childish Gambino returns with a soulful, funky, 70’s inspired psychedelic album littered with elements of R&B and Rock. Gambino once again partnered up with Swedish producer Ludwig Göransson, who besides his co-production on Gambino’s studio albums, is also known for his scores for films like Fruitvale Station, Creed and his music on Fox’s New Girl and NBC’s Community.
“Awaken, My Love!” is personal; it speaks on many issues that Childish Gambino has experienced. The groovy cut “Zombies” speaks of people trying to topple him by defaming him, describing them as lifeless, mindless creatures whose purpose is to leech off of his life, his brain, and his success. He expresses this with an eerie, fearful voice; a warning of sorts assisted by a sultry electric guitar, Kari Faux on background vocals and an intoxicating chant. The outro especially has an absolutely wonderful guitar solo that makes it difficult to remain still for. “Boogieman” is a funky KC and the Sunshine Band interpolation, featuring a remarkably well-placed cowbell. The track refers to current race relations in the United States where he sardonically sings “Though we’re not the one/But in the bounds of your mind, we have done the crime”.
Gambino performs a Prince falsetto emulation on "Redbone" whilst vocally embodying Erykah Badu on a Bootsy Collins influenced instrumental. It talks about a possible breakup and somehow results in becoming the sexiest sounding track released in quite some time. The electric guitar led outro with the beautifully littered glockenspiel is especially captivating. “Riot”, an exceedingly frenzied track, is unnecessarily abridged: it boasts a Funkadelic sample with some in-your-face, but catchy shrieks that overlap over an explosive chorus that the verses on this song are too short to properly build up to. In other words, the explosion happens too soon and it was all over before you knew it. No innuendo intended.
The intended innuendo occurs on the album’s penultimate, instrumental track, “The Night Me and Your Mama Met”. It’s driven by a blissful chant before a breathtaking guitar solo from Gary Clark Jr. joins in. The vocals soon begin lower in tone, becoming darker and more haunting until some elements of the track are stripped and the track ends with the instruments that began it. It’s truly beautiful and reflective of the messy revolution that a relationship can be.
Not all is bleak on “Awaken, My Love!”: the Funkadelic-inspired “Have Some Love” sounds like a really positive hippie track, reminding the world to embrace your brethren. “California”, the album's separator track, features some fun and whimsical sounds: a plucky bass, airy woodwinds, sparse horns, and playful organs just to name a few. It’s really groovy and catchy, then gets completely ruined by Gambino’s vocal performance. It’s unpleasantly goofy, in fact, his voice is laughable. Gambino is clearly doing this on purpose and it’s an honest attempt at being funny, but the result is him being laughed at instead of laughed with.
The direction of “Awaken, My Love!” has surprised many listeners, but there were several indicators that he was heading in a different direction. Songs like “III. Urn” on 2013’s Because the Internet and “Sober” on his R&B influenced Kauai EP from 2014 are indicative of this. “Redbone” as well as the first single, the beautifully volatile “Me and Your Mama” were released to get a feel for what this album was going to be. But the question is, who are all of these different messages directed to? Well, they’re directed to you, the listener, of course. But mainly, Childish Gambino is speaking to his newborn son.
Many figured this out by looking at the tracklisting, but it does put this album under a new light. The warnings of “Zombies”, the explanation of race relations and double entendre of “Boogieman” are entertaining and true depictions of humans. Gambino stressing the importance of unity on “Have Some Love” and describing his relationship with his son’s mother on “Me and Your Mama” and “Baby Boy” are important future conversations. Even songs like “California” are sensible in the album’s context, with its over the top vocals and sunny instrumental.
Childish Gambino expresses fear on “Terrified” with the daunting challenge of becoming a first-time father being inescapable. But on “Baby Boy” Gambino speaks directly to his son, expressing his desire to remain close to his son despite the possibly broken relationship between himself and the mother of his child. He gives his kid an honest, but powerful message “Those these bodies are no our own/walk tall, little one, walk tall.”
The album closer, “Stand Tall” delivers a message of strength and willpower. He tells his son, and the listener to continue to fulfill one’s dreams and to stand tall in the face of adversity. Gambino’s vocals somehow top everything else he’s done on the album thus far: they’re bare and unstrained in the first part of the song, autotuned in the second. The glockenspiel that comes in on the chorus is pretty rad, while the woodwinds are marvelous. The outro finally brings in some subtly triumphant percussion, signaling the end of this journey. Unfortunately, the song goes on to end abruptly in mid-chant. This is intentional more than likely, but it’s jarring and doesn’t deliver on the magnificent finale that it was heading towards.
“Awaken, My Love!” is a colorful, eclectic, multifaceted, occasionally disappointing, letter to his child. Its sounds are nostalgic and groovy, captivating and peculiar. It's an album filled with warnings of the negatives of the world, explanations of how complicated relationships can be, fears of beginning the chapter of fatherhood, but finishes with the message that one must stand tall and “smile when you can”. So stand tall, little ‘Bino. Always.