When an artist changes their musical path drastically and abruptly, there are usually two possibilities: the shift will blow up in their face for abandoning the sound they were known for or the shift will bring them praise and usher in a new artistic period that they can thrive in. Luckily, Actor/Writer/Rapper Donald Glover, AKA Childish Gambino, seems to be experiencing far more of the latter than he is the former with the release of his newest, and seemingly last full-length album under the moniker of Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”.
The album sees him doing away with the rapping that’s served him well as a creative outlet up until this point, only to be replaced with a vintage funk/soul/R&B sound that takes inspiration from the George Clinton led acts Funkadelic and Parliament. This album is quite the note to go out on for the triple threat, especially considering that it’s a complete departure from his two previous full-lengths. In all honesty it really can’t be compared to those works because it’s so far removed. However, that’s not a problem since this album stands tall on its own as both a great funk record and an album that is original in comparison to records from his contemporaries that are going for similar sounds.
The album opens with its lead single, and one of the best tracks this year, “Me and Your Mama”. The track is a hulking behemoth of sound that kicks off with twinkling keyboards and a g-funk synth only to end up getting periodically punctuated by penetrating sub-bass hits that explode into a soul rending song about loving someone more than you ever thought possible. It’s a six minute journey that leaves you wondering, “What could possibly top that”? Thankfully, there are more gems spread throughout the track-list in answer. You have the fun and funky “Have Some Love” ,which has a tight groove but feels comfortable and loose at the same time, like an impromptu jam session between longtime friends. Another fun track is “California”, which has Gambino singing cartoonishly over bottles being hit or blown into.
Though this song seems to be the universal least favorite on the album, it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and is meant as a moment of levity and sunshine for the album. The record isn’t all fun and games however, with slow-burning sensual songs like the album’s second single “Redbone” enticing you with Gambino reaching a non-pitch shifted, vulnerable falsetto that could make any listener melt. Some of the tracks are downright eerie, like the song “Boogieman” with its perfectly groovy bass-lines and vocals tinged with a bit of evil here and there. Overall, the record has a staggering amount of variety and refuses to stay in one place stylistically, while somehow managing to keep it all feeling quite cohesive.
As might be gleaned from the paragraph above, one of the key parts of this record is the vocal performance and Childish definitely takes the “performance” aspect of it seriously. His acting chops really come in handy when he’s doing all the different voices for the songs. A lot of people seem to find this off-putting, but for this writer it just seems to go along with funk music as its always been presented to him. The hyper exaggerated vocal delivery simply sells the authenticity of the record rather than hindering our enjoyment of the compositions. Howevr, it’s also refreshing to hear Glover without any effects on his voice, like in the closer ‘Stand Tall’. Moments like these feel more powerful because of all the different voices Gambino puts on throughout the album. Hearing the passion for his many crafts end up in one project is something worthy of appreciation.
“Awaken, My Love!” is the perfect album to close out Glover’s Childish Gambino chapter in music. It doesn’t follow in the footsteps of his previous releases and in stepping outside of these boundaries, ends up becoming an album that takes an idea and fully fleshes it out, then turns it inside out so we can see every inch of it. It’s not a “Hey, look at this one cool sound/idea!” but a full exploration and love letter to one particular sound, feeling and texture that have yet to really make its way to popular music. Yes, the 70’s soul/R&B sound is coming back, but funk is often left behind and relegated to samples in hip-hop songs from rappers based out of California. Gambino could have sat back and made another rap album and played it safe, but he didn’t, so we now have a new shining star in the realm of funk music that is sure to point many others to the promised land of deep grooves and personal experimentation.
Awaken My Love was released on December 2nd via Glassnote. You can get right here.