Review: Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
If you’ve watched NBC sitcom Community, you’ve seen him. If you’re a hip-hop fan, you’ve likely heard him in ‘Sweatpants’ or ‘3005’. He’s recently landed major roles in the next Star Wars and Spiderman:
Homecoming, and will be playing Simba in a remake of The Lion King. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m talking about Donald Glover or, as he is known in the hip-hop world, Childish Gambino. His first album Camp (2011) contained moments of witty lyricism mainly in the form of disses, as he established his rapper identity, grabbing the attention of the public who knew him as the naïve, college student Troy in Community. As a multi-talented artist, rising into recognition by starting out in a popular comedy show was a smart move: it opened the doors that enabled him to produce his own creative content.
Although he started out as a rapper, Gambino experimented a bit with music creation in his second studio album Because the Internet (2013) and recently surprised fans by ditching rap for an innovative funk gospel sound in Awaken, My Love! (2016).
His new project starts off with a gentle xylophone in ‘Me and Your Mamma’, which then evolves into an exploding gospel chorus satisfyingly paced in a slow, swaying groove. From the surf guitar bounce and goofy voice timbre in ‘California’ to the emotive lyrics of ‘Baby Boy’, each song is a new experience, and yet recurring themes are present in the music and lyrics throughout.
This album is the first in which Glover allows Childish Gambino to express personal emotions. He reveals an element of fear in ‘Redbone’ as he warns “stay woke… Now don’t you close your eyes” in a raspy falsetto supported throughout by a thick bassline. The same atmosphere is created in ‘Terrified’, which ends in a chilling lament of female vocal riffs.
In ‘Have Some Love’, Gambino delivers an optimistic, utopian message: “have some time for one another/really love one another/it’s so hard to find.” He later ironically contradicts this idea in the energetic ‘Riot’, with the lines “no good fighting/world we’re out of captains/. They tried to kill us”. This realism and sense of danger is also projected in the freaky instrumentals of ‘Zombies’ and ‘Boogieman’. Glover’s lyrical content is often politically aware and unafraid to expose real life, as seen from his previous rap albums and in Atlanta, his internationally appraised TV series.
Several critics have noted that some aspects of the album are dangerously close to 1970’s band Funkadelic, and borrows some of Prince’s vocal strategies. While it is true that Glover pays homage to various funk artists, he has managed to create an original sound with features relevant to this era and to develop the identity of Childish Gambino.
In any case, with the increasing amount of homogenised music produced by popular artists today, it is truly refreshing to hear such intricately powerful musical elements in a recent album.