I remember when I was first getting into hip-hop, one of the first artists I got into was Childish Gambino. As someone who was more familiar with Gambino, or Donald Glover, for his stand-up comedy, I was shocked by just how talented he was as a rapper. While flawed, Camp is still a fun listen for me and Because the Internet is one of my favorite rap albums of the last few years, I love that record. Following this, and his excellent new television series Atlanta, I was eager to see what Glover had planned for his third studio album.
The first thing fans of Gambino will know once they start listening to this album is just how different it is. Nothing is rapped here, this is a purely R&B, soul and funk album, less reliant on beats and more focused on creating more authentic production to back Glover’s vocals. This is where people are going to instantly split on this album. Either they go along with the ride and try and take it for what it is or get turned off by the radical change in style listen to Gambino’s older material. Personally, I had absolutely no issue going with the former.
As soon as the lead single, which opens this record, “Me and Your Mama” was released, I knew this “Awaken, My Love!” would be special. The song starts off with some quieter synth before exploding with funky, blues rock instrumentation. Glover proves to be a presence on this album right off the bat, screaming his vocals over a chorus singing behind him. The pain he feels while singing about the girl in question, presumably the mother of the child he recently had, really comes through and the song marks an explosive start to this record.
The following single “Redbone” was even better, putting more emphasis on the lyrics. The song is about African Americans trying to become incorporated into a white society, hence the title which is a term for a light skinned black woman. Gambino’s vocals have also been pitched up, making this sound even more like a tribute to Prince or even D’Angelo. The bass line on this track also leads it quite well.
As for the rest of this album, the best comparison I can make is to Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth from earlier this year. While the two are from totally different genres, the comparison still works giving this album’s overarching themes. As mentioned, Glover recently became a father, which he has remained quiet about up until this album. Similar to Simpson’s latest, Glover uses this record as a chance to communicate to his child about various virtues.
On the Funkadelic inspired “Have Some Love,” Gambino sings with a chorus or people about showing love towards your brothers, accompanied by instrumentation that sounds straight out of the 70s. This production, which is largely handled by frequent Gambino collaborator Ludwig Göransson, helps to bring a shocking amount of authenticity to this project.
The following two tracks showcase Glover’s natural ability to add theatrics to his music, something that was even present when he rapped. On “Boogieman,” Glover emulates music from Blaxploitation films, especially with the layered vocals on the verses. The song has a deeper meaning about the relationship between African Americans and the police, illustrating the racial fears the two have in each other. “Zombies” is an even clearer example of this, as Glover’s vocals are slow and wild, as if he is a zombie himself. He sings about people who latch onto his fame and success and try to drain him of what he is worth.
Towards the end of the album is when Gambino starts to sing to his newborn child directly, starting with “Baby Boy.” The incredibly sincere song has Gambino singing about his love for his infant son, saying he does not want anything to take his son away from him. Hints at a fractured relationship with the mother of his son are heavily implied here, adding to the drama of the situation. The song ends with a spoken word poem from Glover, as he tells his son that this place is only temporary for us and we must walk through life with pride.
Following the laid-back, yet gorgeous, instrumental of “The Night Me and Your Mama Met,” courtesy of Gary Clark Jr., we end things off with the beautiful “Stand Tall.” The song is broken into two parts, the first a soulful ballad where Glover relays a message his father taught him. He tells his son about the importance of standing tall, as you cannot fail if you remain confident and proud of yourself. The second part continues this theme, with a chorus backing Glover as he sings over angelic instrumentation. The whole song is beautiful and ends this album in a truly great way.
While there are few flaws on here, they must be addressed. While I like the wild, manic production and singing of “Riot,” the short two minute length left me wanting more, especially since it seemed to be addressing some interesting ideas. “California” is not a horrible song like some have said, but it definitely does not feel like it belongs on this project. Gambino’s mumbled delivery feels too immature and sloppy for this project. It gets redeemed once it fades into the great “Terrified” which adds some maturity to the character that Gambino seems to be playing.
While it feels weird to compare “Awaken, My Love!” to any of his other projects, I can safely say that this is Glover’s most mature album to date and shows great artistic growth. It gives me faith that whatever genre Glover’s next material is, it will be well handled and if he could possibly incorporate these elements into his rap that would be absolutely amazing. This proves that Childish Gambino is here to stay and I am eager to see what he has in store for us next. This will certainly win him over several new fans, while mostly satisfying the ones he has now.
Best Tracks: Me and Your Mama, Have Some Love, Boogieman, Zombies, Redbone, Terrified, Baby Boy, Stand Tall
Worst Track: California