2016 has introduced a very different Donald Glover to the world. 10 years ago, Glover wrote jokes for the massively funny 30 Rock. In 2009, his role on Community sparked interest with his character Troy’s heartfelt relationship with fellow nerd Abed. Next came a brief stand-up comedy stint with the TV special Weirdo. Somehow, underneath all of this, he garnered enough attention with freestyle rapping and mixtapes to land a deal on Glassnote records to release the obnoxious “Camp” and the better, but still a bit obtuse “Because the Internet.” Tying all of these streams together was Glovers childish personality and his simple, yet wholesome comedic flavor. Perhaps the fact that he had engaged in so many activities made up for his occasionally hamfisted rap lyricism, slightly one-dimensional comedic sense, and lacking acting chops.
But 2016 sees Glover the grown-up. You have to admire the guy’s ideas over the years, but rather than relying on his youthful freshness to land all of his jokes, his now multi-dimensional personality has allowed him to capitalize on all his talents efficiently. Like his pointed depiction of the black experience on his series “Atlanta,” “Awaken! My Love” comes together in a mature setting. An educated re-interpretation of the likes of Parliament, Prince, and James Brown smashes ears for the half with spacey, mellow soul tracks finishing things off. Perhaps Childish Gambino’s voice lacks a sliver of the natural beauty of the likes of Frank Ocean and Beyonce, but the record displays as mastery of “playing to your strengths;” lush instrumentals and backing vocals combine nicely with vocal effects and various instances of voice acting—take the halloweentown tropes of “Zombies” for example—to make for an entertaining experience from front to back.
“Me and Your Momma” rides in on a dream with a drifting beat growing slightly for the first two minutes. Then, for another two minutes, the twinkling keyboards, smooth bassline, and bouncing backing vocals are replaced with rigorous psychedelia. Gambino’s anxious yelps scream over gospelly backing-vocal efforts and heavy guitar groove. A brief bridge sheds some light on the acoustic guitar, bringing yet another shade of sound into the polarizing track. The structure of the song introduces the record really well. In the tracks that follow, the grooves remain rather dense from front to back, but “Me and Your Momma” just feeds the audience a slice of what’s to come, bookended by soupy dream sequence. Next, we get a rundown of the 70s with a “Have Some Love’s” Funkadelic singalong; “Boogieman’s” Hendrix nod; and “Zombies’” creepy slow jam.
When borrowing as much as he does on this part of the record, Gambino does make a strong effort to provide some contrast in the bridge. “Have Some Love” nearly develops into a new track all together once the spacey keys jump into the equation. Again punching guitar grooves are replaced with spacey synths and Gambino’s isolated vocals on “Boogieman.” Slowly but surely, Gambino’s freaky voice-character fades out of the equation on “Zombies” ending the track in a much more modern place.
“Redbone” heralds in a shift in focus. The much more neo-soul rooted tune begins with a smooth beat before the “Nikes” vocal effect sets in for a strained vocal performance to match Gambino’s heart-wrenching lyricism. “California” is a bit of an outlier, an over-exaggerated vocal character comes through in a bright sonic space, but Gambino throws us right back into the night-time with the brooding bassline on “Terrified.” “Baby Boy” reads as a touching tribute to Gambino’s son, before “Stand Tall” wraps things up with a hectic final rundown of all of the grooves on the record.
Many of the lyrics touch upon fear. There’s the bluntly titled “Zombies,” the creeps who are “Gon’ catch you sleeping” on “Redbone,” and the again appropriately titled “Terrified.” This all comes full circle with Gambino’s dedication to his son on “Baby Boy,” where he hints that his mistakes may separate them: “when mama cries from daddy’s lies/Oh my, please don’t take him away.” Perhaps the heavy use of vocal effects is reflective of this underlying tension. As Gambino’s rigorous funk grooves go on, his vocals are made strained and difficult by various effects, making for a contradicting experience. We slowly find out that Gambino loves his son, but anxiety runs rampant in thoughts about the future. Then after the whole experience is over, Gambino sings clearly over a stripped back instrumental about standing tall to overcome on the last track.
Not only is “Awaken! My Love” a well-crafted sonic experience, but Gambino’s lyricism becomes slowly more and more poignant, ending with a self-aware tribute to his newborn son. Still, the goofy moments shed light on the Donald Glover that’s been on the rise for the past decade. Hopefully he continues to surprise and evolve in the coming years.
Childish Gambino grows up.