Despite his flourishing careers in television and music, Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, keeps a pretty private life. When he’s not starring in Hollywood films (The Martian) or hit television series (Community), or even showrunning his own series (Atlanta), the man maintains social media silence. But as his third studio album as Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!” shows, Glover keeps his ear to the ground. Three years after the release of his last LP, the enigmatic and heavily jaded Because the Internet, Glover trades smartass rap lyrics and hazy introspection for…funkadelic soul? Coming at the end of a year full of huge and egocentric hip-hop projects, “Awaken, My Love!” isn’t just a huge left hook to the industry—it sidesteps the ‘rap game’ entirely. Childish Gambino’s latest is a fearless exploration of ‘black music’ of the 70s that feels more relevant to 2016 than any album before it.
Perhaps crucial to understanding this album is another fact that Glover’s kept under wraps—earlier this year he became a father. While the lack of rapping is sure to alienate some of Gambino’s fanbase, “Awaken, My Love!” is addressed to Glover’s son, both lyrically and stylistically. This is made obvious by tracks like “Me and Your Mama”, “Baby Boy”, and the sweet-sounding instrumental “The Night Me and Your Mama Met”. But while much of the album is meant to be a reminder to his son to “stand tall”, Glover is in turn speaking to the black community. The psychedelic-soul “Riot” states things explicitly: “They tried to kill us / Love to say they feel us / But they won’t take my pride.” There’s a lot of talk of pride, used interchangeably with Gambino’s son (and future generations of black Americans), such as in the hook of “Baby Boy”: “Don’t take my baby boy / Don’t take my pride and joy”. While Because the Internet bore a lot of shame towards modern society, the genre-versatility in “Awaken, My Love!” is a plea to hold on to what’s good, and what’s always been good about black culture.
Across 11 tracks, Gambino adopts a soulful shriek (“Me and Your Mama”, “Riot”), a quivering falsetto (“Redbone”, “Baby Boy”), and a spiking croon (“Boogieman”, “Zombies”), all with an ease and confidence unseen in much of his previous discography. The album has a smooth mixture of smartly produced soul, funk, and R&B, so no tracks—perhaps with the exception of the reggae “California”—feel like out of place genre cash-ins. Small touches from Glover and co-producer Ludwig Göransson give everything a shimmering, modern sheen that keeps things from simply sounding like a time capsule from the 70s. While standout tracks like the roaring “Me and Your Mama” and the silky “Redbone” were spoiled as advance singles, there’re still some hard hits from the album—tender slow jam “Baby Boy” and album closer “Stand Tall” come to mind. There’s likely to be a style represented in a track that doesn’t jive with each listener, but as a whole it’s a multitalented showcase which proves dusty genres can still blow your hair back.
In the half-decade since his debut album, Camp, we’ve seen Childish Gambino grow up from rapping about dick jokes to creating one of the year’s boldest artistic statements. “Awaken, My Love!” doesn’t try to be the kind of album you could recommend to anyone, but its worth goes beyond just a nostalgia-trip. Donald Glover collects a decade’s worth of culture and condenses it into a fun package that stands fearlessly in tandem with a grave warning. 2016 was a year of such social turmoil that it became necessary to remind people that Black Lives Matter. “Awaken, My Love!” may not be the best album of the year, but it feels like the most important—an unashamed reminder to everyone that Black Music Matters.
album review by Matthew Wardell