Review: Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”

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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.

You can buy

You can buy “Awaken, My Love!” on iTunes.

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.

3.5/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel 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.

Review: Empty Houses – Empty Houses EP

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There is something immediately noticeable about Empty Houses that makes it hypnotic, but its hard to place exactly. It could be the throwback factor about not hearing motown music regularly. It could be the simplified, majestic jazz version of Fireworks that makes you want to dance. The obvious one though is the soulful commanding voice of singer Ali Shea, who steals the show and makes the EP her own. If the self titled EP is anything to be taken seriously, Empty Houses are poised to potentially dominate the world should they get the backing that they deserve.

Empty Houses is the brainchild of pop punk staple Fireworks’ vocalist David Mackinder, touring member Adam Mercer and singer Ali Shea. The EP stands as something that is on a short list of releases that actually make me mad because it ends far too quickly. The musicianship is stripped down, allowing each instrument to shine to the forefront and Shea’s voice bleeds soul and croons perfectly. I need more.

Mackinder and Mercer play beautifully. They’re a perfect throwback sound that would’ve fit in easily as some of the best music of the motown movement fifty years ago. The melodies aren’t overly complicated, but layered enough to sound fully fleshed out. While I wouldn’t have noticed it without already knowing, there is a level of Fireworks-style of flare to the song writing (vocal melody and bass line, specifically) that helps the music pop even more.

For only having two musicians, the duo work masterfully. Two guitars trade riffs and change tempo to work softly as well as they do to make you want to dance. The bass pushes the songs along almost more than anything else, and has some incredible riffs. One of the best additions is the precise thunder of the drums, which really improves the classic motown sound and makes it sound modern. Mackinder, as a background vocalist, is a perfect match to harmonize with Ali.

I am in love with Ali Shea. From what I can tell, this is her first real musical venture, and the fact that her name isn’t already known is something short of a travesty. Her voice is utterly dripping with soul. She entrances the listener with soft crooning before exploding to hit higher notes, and making it sound miraculously simple. To put it in perspective, she sounds like a mixture of Zoey Deschanel of She & Him and Adele, but with a tone of more honey and conversation. I could literally listen to her for days.

Lyrically, Empty Houses is a pop album through and through. There isn’t any of the philosophy of Fireworks to be found, but that doesn’t mean things are simple. The songs are about lost love, and fit perfectly to Shea’s voice. There is a definite weight even to pop lyrics such as “I had this comfort built up inside that was a good place for me to hide. I’m hoping for a little longer and I cried all night, thinking about it, I’m trying to convince myself that I’m all right living without it” from “Far Away”.

Empty Houses have potential to make incredible waves in the music industry if marketed correctly. While there are a number of modern motown and bluesy groups out there, few have the instant ability to stand out, even if they are more of a throwback sound than an exploration. Singer Ali Shea has honest potential to take the country by storm with her voice, and I hope more people hear it. Whatever the future holds for Empty Houses, I want to hear it sooner rather than later. Please go check out their EP from their bandcamp site. You won’t regret it.

4.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and his new life goal is to hear Ali Shea sing live. It sounds creepy, but it comes from a place of adoration. Does that make it worse? Oh no…. 😦