Alright. Where do I start with this?
As we all know by now, Donald Glover is a man of many talents. His stand-up is irreverent and reflective of his untraditional upbringing, his writing is Chekhovian in its layered precision, and his new show Atlanta is easily one of the best on television. Out of all the tricks up his sleeve, though, Glover’s music is both the most consistent and troubled. He’s released a steady stream of projects since 2008’s Sick Boi, but didn’t catch success until his abhorrently faux-philosophical Camp. As a rapper, he has a tendency to succumb to obvious punchlines and unnecessarily complex flows. We know he can spit great verses (I’ll direct you to the first half of Because the Internet), but for some reason, Glover has difficulty staying grounded over the course of his full length projects.
Of course, none of that is really relevant for “Awaken, My Love!” because this isn’t a rap album. Not only that, it isn’t really reminiscent of anything Glover has worked on in recent memory, musical or otherwise. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like Donald picked up Maggot Brain, Animals, and Purple Rain, and then just got to work. It’s really interesting for me because I’m so familiar with Childish Gambino’s discography, but I’ve been listening to this 70’s rock and funk since I was a kid. It took me a while to let this album sink in because I assumed it would engage one part of my brain, but Glover instead reached into a totally different area.
I think that’s possibly the most important element of this album. Much like Frank Ocean’s Blond, it should not be judged by the artist’s discography, nor by what it draws influence from. “Awaken, My Love!” is a psychedelic-funk album, fronted by a versatile (may I say “soul singer?”), released in the year 2016. It’s a bit of an anomaly.
I could zoom in on any of these aspects, but we ought to start with a glaring question: why the hell hasn’t Donald Glover been singing this whole time? The opening cut, “Me and Your Mama,” immediately blows any expectations out of the water. After an extended, textural neo-gospel introduction, the listener is suddenly subjected to fuzzed-out guitars and a swampy bass groove. And then Glover starts howling over it all! He hits a screech that Robert Plant would be proud of, with goosebump-inducing earnestness. Over the course of the album he adopts vocal inflections that span from unabashedly sexy, to terrifying (pun intended), to downright goofy, and he delivers them all with power and dynamic attention.
In another context, some of these performances might be mishandled. Glover’s vocals on “California” definitely approach a hindering campiness, but thankfully, the sincerity of the production is a worthy counterbalance. Just about the entire record is handled by Glover and his longtime collaborator Ludwig Göransson, and they’ve opted for the live instrumentation that was taken for granted in the era of their influences, but now seems quite refreshing. The bass lines are dense, the drums are deadened, and the subtle interplay allows plenty of room at the top of the mix for some show-stealing moments like Gary Clark Jr.’s solo on “The Night Me and Your Mama Met.”
What’s more impressive than the instrumentation, though, is the writing. Glover and Göransson seem to have harnessed the near improvised feel of both Atlanta and Glover’s sketch comedy, translating these concepts into an album full of total unpredictability. You think you’ve got it figured out, you think you’ve wrapped your head around the record’s sound, and then you’re hit with something completely out of left field. The outro on “Zombies” (which is really about half of the song) turns the album away from the organized chaos of Funkadelic and introduces a light, hypnotic pattern that foreshadows what we’ll hear in the second half of the track listing. Speaking of which, “Stand Tall:” a closer which is almost orchestral in its attention to detail and meticulous planning, and yet, each transition is so authentic, making total sense while remaining unforeseen.
At the same time, “Awaken My Love!” is completely capable of stepping back and letting a melody or a voice speak for itself, without tampering. This is a stark contrast from Glover’s past work, which has been as unsettled as a five year old in a dentist’s waiting room. “Redbone” is the slow-burning psych-R&B number that relaxes the record at its halfway point, allowing a breath of fresh air before engulfing us in some of the more contemplative, experimental tracks. It’s a simple melody, first plucked out on a guitar, then doubled by a vibraphone, before Glover squeaks in at the top of his register. I can name any of ten singers he’s drawing his tone from, but it’d be a futile exercise, an attempt to minimize the track’s atmospheric accomplishments. The vocals are soulful and sweet, bouncing off a saturated synth bass, appearing fresh in their obsession with the past. “Redbone” has ample room to evolve, layering in each aspect of the production, giving way to a hypnotizing electric jam. This space is utilized all over the album, from the counterintuitive clavinet rhythms of “Baby Boy” to the echoed gospel harmonies over the back half of “Terrified.” Why these sensibilities haven’t found their way into Glover’s music before now, I’m not sure, but I’m also not complaining.
At the end of the day, this record really isn’t for everyone; especially not for Childish Gambino’s modern-day rap fans. Honestly, despite the oblique Funkadelic homages, I’m hearing Pink Floyd more than anything else. “Me and Your Mama” has all the haunting emotion of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” and then some. But really, that’s just to say that this is not the Childish Gambino album anybody expected. There isn’t one rap verse on here, and you know? I’m okay with that. At this point in his career, I think we ought to allow Donald Glover the space to experiment with his craft and create something different. Between “Awaken, My Love!” and Atlanta, Glover is having a year full of pay-offs from a lifetime of dedication to his many talents.
Written by Preston Fulks