2016 was a landmark year for Donald Glover. The actor, screenwriter, comedian, rapper and singer came into the year most recognized for his acting roles on the NBC show “Community” and in the feature length, Oscar-nominated film, “The Martian.” Musically, he had already established a firm fanbase of hip-hop heads who knew him better under the alias of Childish Gambino for his projects “Because the Internet,” “Camp” and “Kauai” as well as his early projects such as 2010’s “I Am Just a Rapper” (parts one and two). Glover came into the year with momentum, but brought his television and film career to new heights in the second half of the year with the premiere of his cable series, “Atlanta” on FX and the announcement of his role as Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo Star Wars stand-alone movie, so to end the year, all of the questions naturally revolved around when he would release his new album.
Aside from his mysterious “Pharos” festival in Joshua Tree held in September, which sold out in minutes and allowed no cell phone usage, he remained relatively quiet musically until December 2, when “Awaken, My Love!” finally hit streaming services. The album puts Gambino’s music into a completely different spectrum of sound, and brings the listener into a nostalgic flash of funk and soul that leaves us with his most polished yet risky project to date.
“Awaken, My Love!” came as a surprise to many of Gambino’s fans. Although he strayed a bit from rap on his 2014 project “Kauai,” he abandons it completely here, and takes his listeners into a nostalgic, yet cutting edge, gold-dipped world of funk and brash sound, while fresh to many of his young listeners, may catch the ear of a die-hard funk listener as a half-hearted, unauthentic homage to the the music that defined the black soul soundscape of the late ‘60s and early to mid-‘70s. The sonic shift was foreshadowed upon release of the album’s lead single, “Me and Your Mama” in early November.
The single was a definite push of the envelope for Gambino and was a different frequency from almost any other contemporary R&B artist other than those of the likes of D’Angelo. Rock, neo-soul and soul influence are all in the soundscape of the track which creates somewhat of a stark contrast to the more funk-inspired sound we hear on the rest of the project.
This track features a gospel choir over gorgeous descending keyboard scales and powerful bass notes that evolve into deep, booming 808 bumps and light hi-hats that we are accustomed to hearing on hip-hop tracks as the song progresses into its drop that defines the last three minutes. Gambino’s voice comes in soon after and stuns the ear with his powerfully belted high notes that bring emotion into every moment as he professes his heartbreak,saying, “Girl you really got a hold on me, so this isn’t just puppy love.”
As “Awaken, My Love!” progresses, we are greeted with very clearly Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone-inspired tracks such as “Have Some Love,” “Zombies” and “Boogieman,” which are three tracks that do what a lot of the project’s songs tend to do: Fly under the radar and fade into the background of the project’s landscape. The sound that Gambino and his producer Ludwig Goransson create, although undeniably funk, tends to lack the authentic groove and purpose that you hear on tracks such as Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” or on Sly & the Family Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song” or really any ‘70s funk artist’s sound.
“Riot,” for example, is the album’s fifth track, and takes listeners into the heart of a riot from the perspective of a person who is involved in the chaos. Although Gambino has an undeniable uniqueness in his new sound as compared to other contemporary artists, there is also no denying that the funk sounds on “Awaken, My Love!” are originally those of artists who came to define the early ‘70s and his sound doesn’t evolve past that at all. Rather it almost blindly copies it.
That being said, the album does show some bright spots. There were three tracks that really stood out — the two singles, “Me and Your Mama” and “Redbone,” and the album’s closing track, “Stand Tall.” “Redbone,” since the album release, has become the project’s most widely recognizable song. The nostalgic track with its slow tempo and groovy, bouncy guitar hook over sharp piano chords and rough bass line that pushes the track into its different breaks gives listeners a unique and undeniably throwback feel, but Gambino’s vocals are what sets the track over the top. His vocals are slick and precise as he uses a laid-back falsetto, with a unique tone that sounds nothing like anyone else out right now, as it’s unequivocally his. Lyrically, the song is very minimalistic, but it evokes a great deal of emotion and thought. It appears to be a warning of sorts to an ex lover, who “(don’t) play right” and who “made a nigga wait for some for so long,” but regardless of these fallacies of his past lover, Gambino isn’t bitter, he beckons to her and asks her to watch out for other guys trying to take advantage of her in the song’s hook, saying, “Stay woke / they be creepin’,” a very mature approach to love that could only be reached by a person that will be 33 years old come September.
On “Awaken, My Love!” Gambino most definitely saves the best for last with the closing track, “Stand Tall.” Sonically, the track creates a breezy atmosphere with its gorgeous keyboard chords and acoustic guitar riffs, which echo those on the Isley Brothers’ classic anthem, “Summer Breeze.” However, Gambino’s inspiration, and my fandom for the sounds of the Isley Brothers, funk and Motown aside, this track is a unique venture into a new soundscape that, although heavily influenced by artists of the 20th century, is exclusively that of 2016 Childish Gambino.
About three minutes in, the track transitions from its once smooth chord progression to drop into an interlude with a jazz flute harmonizing to Gambino’s voice over more electric piano improvisation, which abruptly ends to transition the track into its conclusion with powerful, wavering synths, that ooze soul and bring the song full circle. The song closes with Gambino once again echoing his father’s and mother’s advice, “Keep on your dreams, keep standing tall.” Aside from the already stellar instrumentation, the track’s highlight once again is Gambino’s voice. He strays away from any and all character voices, or shrieking, which we hear throughout the album on tracks like “California” and “Have Some Love.” Instead his delivery is calm and very natural, and he showcases the almost broadway caliber clarity and beauty of his voice along with his crisp falsetto and melody work that can spark comparisons to legends like Prince and Michael Jackson.
“Awaken, My Love!” is a bold statement from an innovative artist. The funk sounds and rhythms that Gambino draws from on many cuts of the album can be seen as fandom and some may even go as far as to call it near plagiarism, but if that is what it took for him to be able to write songs as good as “Redbone” and “Stand Tall” then listeners should take it for what it is: An album that experimented with a sound that is a foundation for a lot of today’s music but has long been abandoned in its raw form in mainstream music. “Awaken, My Love!” is a big step for Gambino as an artist, as it puts him on the map as a serious singer and songwriter. His fans should be excited to see where he goes from here in his musical journey.