In 2013, I argued Childish Gambino’s merit as one of the most important rappers on the scene. The Grammy-nominated Because the Internet wasn’t just a monumental step forward for the artist that created it – it was filled with the kind of potential that might send ripples through the art form itself.
Since that time, Donald Glover has had little interest in pulling at that thread, instead releasing the pop-inspired Kauai EP, going radio silent for nearly a year, and re-emerging with one of 2016’s most important new TV series, Atlanta. Given his ever-growing talents and seeming determination to never do the same thing twice, his latest musical installment, “Awaken, My Love!”, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even so, it confounds.
As if to hammer into our skulls that the days of dick jokes and quirky one-liners are as far in the past as possible, “Awaken, My Love!” treads far away from any path you might expect a Childish Gambino record to travel. In all actuality, Glover is far from the first rapper to draw heavy influence from 70’s soul and funk – Outkast, Kendrick Lamar and others have all drawn deeply from this well, even recently. However, Glover has tumbled in headfirst in a continuing quest to expand his reflections on relationships, race and existence.
Gambino’s gospel-infused plea of, “Let me into your heart” on lead single “Me and Your Mama” proved to be far more than a gimmick to get our attention. That track is merely the most palatable re-introduction to an artist now more inspired by Bootsy Collins or George Clinton than Jay or Ye.
Awaken wanders through a vast sonic forest of psychedelic funk and soul, with each track standing easily alone thanks to Glover’s insistence on changing character. His screams from the album opener transition to creepy inflections on “Zombies”, a commentary on industry leeches: “All I see is zombies / They can smell your money / And they want your soul”. Later, on album highlight “Redbone”, his voice takes on a pitch-corrected falsetto as he reflects on the painful gray areas of a relationship that seems to mirror that of Earn and Van’s on Atlanta.
At it’s best, Awaken capitalizes on Glover’s creativity and range, matching distinctive vocal choices with bold music selections to carry the weight of his message. On “Baby Boy”, his distorted pleading voice perfectly and painfully encapsulates his fears of losing connection with his newborn son: “I don’t wanna leave you / I don’t want him to see you / But oh, when mama cries from daddy’s lies / Please don’t take him away”.
These earnest moments make tracks like “California” nearly insufferable. The potential for success is squelched by Glover’s painful accent and clumsy lines like, “How you want to loop this shit but looking like a Vine?” If we weren’t so far removed from some of the juvenile deliveries of Camp, you could easily write these attempts off as humor, but “Awaken, My Love!” shakes away that notion every turn, making any such reconciliation difficult.
It comes as a deep relief when Glover is able to tie these stray ends together by the album’s conclusion. On “Stand Tall”, Gambino forgoes vocal effects and accents as he uses his father’s words to bring understanding amidst personal and universal confusion: “Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall / If you are strong, you cannot fall”. It’s such an easily digestible sincerity that you can’t help but reach for the repeat button to see if your perception of Awaken might shift upon repeated listens.
Glover has certainly earned the creative license that results in something like “Awaken, My Love!” And, as a project deeply inspired by childhood memories with his father, it makes sense as vehicle to express his evolving perspective on relationships and his own first taste of fatherhood. It’s a deeply personal record that feels genuine, sometimes as a direct result of the very flaws it possesses.
Perhaps Awaken is Childish Gambino’s 808s & Heartbreak – an intimate and peculiar expression that leads the artist headlong into a masterpiece. Whatever the case, it’s an album worth talking about and further proof that Donald Glover is one of the most fascinating and curious artists around.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.