After months of mysterious promotion, an album premiere in the desert, and two sultry singles, Donald Glover’s third studio album as Childish Gambino has been released to the public. In an unexpected twist that has polarized his fan base, Gambino has ditched his rap persona to incite a funk revival. Awaken, My Love! is a dynamic exploration of vintage sounds, featuring provocative lyrics delivered through a massive range of vocal techniques.
Throughout his musical career Donald Glover has combined his understanding of pop culture with his aptitude for storytelling to explore a variety of fictional characters. His preceding studio album, Because The Internet, is told from the perspective of “The Boy,” who is the angsty teenage son of Rick Ross. On the 2014 mixtape, Stn Mtn, he fabricated a world where he ran his home city of Atlanta. In his latest release, Gambino replaces comedy and fantasy with reality and history. The resulting record is earnest and sincere, revealing a level of substance that is purposely absent from his previous projects.
Gambino’s third record features lush instrumentals and vintage percussion. The album’s opener, “Me and Your Mama,” serves as an epic introduction to Glover’s sonic inspiration for the album. The instrumentation creates an elaborate soundscape that wraps his vocal melodies in a warm and scratchy blanket. Throughout the album he pays homage to the soulful sounds of the P-Funk era—almost to a fault. The backing track for “Have Some Love” features punchy drums and a twangy chord progression that is overly reminiscent of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That.” Although the record has an uncanny resemblance to popular psychedelic funk, Gambino accurately captures the essence of George Clinton while adding in unique elements.
Glover uses a plethora of vocal styles throughout the album to create trippy and dramatic melodies. At times, his passionate vocals are refreshingly akin to Prince and James Brown. Other times, his voice has an otherworldly tone that is incomparable to any of his influences. Songs like “Zombies” and “Terrified” feature spooky lead and background vocals to match the messaging and instrumentals. Gambino also uses his malleable voice to convey certain feelings throughout the album. This is the case on one of the record’s strongest tracks, “Redbone.” On this sexy slow jam, Glover describes a frustrating infatuation while hidden behind a falsetto that is almost unrecognizable. Impressively enough, there was no pitch manipulation on any of his vocals throughout the album.
The lyrical content is less flashy than the clever bars on his previous two studio albums, but his message is far from boring. His words reflect a more mature and insecure perspective, resulting from the dramatic changes he’s experienced over the past few years. Many of the songs act as a canvas to express his personal turmoil revolving around politics, race relations, and his family. Songs like “Baby Boy” convey the overwhelming love he felt after the birth of his son, as well as his fear for their future. While other tracks, like “Stand Tall,” explain the importance of solidarity and perseverance during in a time of harsh division. Gambino mentioned in a recent interview with triple-j that this album was affected by the current political climate of the US. Through this album, and his FX series, Atlanta, Donald Glover is furthering his reputation as an intellectual social commentator.
While this album may not be what we expected, or even what we wanted, it may be the most compelling piece that Childish Gambino has created thus far. He’s stripped away the fluff and fiction that made him famous, and replaced it with authenticity and soul. In order to truly step away from the experiences that shaped his previous projects, he had to shift his musical paradigm. And whether you like the direction or not, you have to respect the fact that Donald Glover is constantly expanding his creative comfort zone.