Childish Gambino, aka Donald Glover, is multi-talented; he’s a musician, an actor, a writer, and a comedian. He is also extremely skilled at all of these things. His FX show, Atlanta, is one of the best written and socially important television programs I have come across in recent years. Gambino is always looking for a new direction to take his career and Awaken, My Love! definitely brings him into uncharted waters, and he’s hoping to bring the rest of you along.
The cover art is reminiscent of Funkadelic’s 1971 album Maggot Brain. Gambino is going to get funky. The lead single and opening track of the album ‘Me and Your Mama’ starts with a twinkling riff before a falsetto chorus and high pitched synths enter to create a spacey, funky atmosphere. This all builds and bursts into a heavy, rock guitar riffs. the choral singing chants on defiantly over the guitar riff, all this is underlined by a haunted laughter. And then out of the maelstrom comes Gambino, his voice is high and desperate, even rasping at times. On this track, Gambino is the master of his vocals, his pain is palpable. Then all of a sudden, that’s it. The song is over, the bass slaps out the last bars.
‘Have Some Love’ feels as though it is straight off a Sly and the Family Stone album. The chorus is upbeat and hopeful, it feels part of an era gone by. Then through the verses feel weak, as though they are an attempt to get from A to B with Gambino mumbling over a (admittedly cool) lonely bass riff. ‘Boogieman’ almost feels like more of the same, the tone is slightly different with the faux-horror blaxplotation that funk is so well married to but it feels uninspired. ‘Boogieman’s placing on the album is clear but sat between the optimism of ‘Have Some Love’ and the camp horror of ‘Zombies’ it feels like the weak link in the chain.
‘Zombies’ is smooth and theatrical. Here Glover, the actor is here as much as Gambino to musician. The fear in his voice is hammed up to 11 and the guitar twisting and turning around the plodding bass makes this song one of the highlights of the album. ‘Riot’ in contrast is truly a clamouring riot of a song. Here, Gambino’s vocals jump with energy and well directed anger, this is especially when matched with the harmonising chorus.
The flash in the pan, that is ‘Riot’ is followed by the sexy jam ‘Redbone’ the second single which came out before the album. The lightly popped bass which props up the main riff gives this song a really slow grind feel to. This is only bolstered Gambino’s swaying falsetto. This song will be on everyone’s ‘In the Mood’ playlist by the end of the year. Unfortunately, this is undermined by ‘California’, the weakest track on the album. The main riff which seems inspired by Charles Watt’s ‘Express Yourself’ but muted, less energetic then there are strange flutey effects which feel odd when paired with Gambino’s autotuned which only restricts his vocals. ‘Terrified’ is another slow burner of track, whilst it’s funky, it has the most modern beat on here. This track feels as though it could stand in the charts amongst contemporaries such as the Weeknd, another slow and sexy track.
The tone of ‘Baby Boy’ is a complete departure from the tone of the rest of the album. The swinging guitar and bass feel almost European in tone. And whilst the rest of the album is very sexual, the love in this song is more maternal than anything. The refrain of ‘don’t take my baby boy’ is sad, hopeless but loving. ‘The Night Me and Your Mama Met’ feels like filler, the only completely instrumental track on the album doesn’t give any meaningful transition between ‘Baby Boy’ and ‘Stand Tall’ nor does it justify itself as a standalone track. ‘Stand Tall’ is a perfect album closer. A spacey, funky lullaby of a track, we find ourselves woo’d by Gambino’s vocals backed by minimal instrumentation. This is until the middle eight where a child choir bleats over the spacey synths and the song breaks into an autotuned exploration of the main riff. Before breaking again into echoing and acoustically spacious vocals, and light instrumentation.
This is an album that not many people were expecting, and even fewer people wanted, from Childish Gambino. However, this is Gambino’s most mature album to date. His exploration of funky sounds will hopefully inspire other artists to follow suit, the world is in need of a funk revival. Where this album fails is often in its ambition, it sometimes is confused of the sound that it is looking for (see ‘California’). There are also times when this album treads on familiar territory, creating an almost by-the-numbers funk track (see ‘Boogieman’). That being said, Awaken, My Love! is fun, sexy, modern, and probably the only thing you’ll hear like it this year.