2016 is finally wrapping up, and it hasn’t been a great year for everyone. We’ve lost a lot of celebrities this year, there’s been a lot of political uproar, and people are generally at each other’s throats these days. But for Donald Glover — aka Childish Gambino – 2016 has been a milestone year. The first season of his new show – Atlanta — has been a huge hit on FX, earning a second season just two weeks after the show’s premiere. He’s also been busy with filming for his role in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot – Spider-Man: Homecoming – although his actual role in the film has been a well-kept secret. A couple months ago, it was also announced that Glover had obtained the highly coveted role of young Lando Calrissian in the 2018 Han Solo origin film, which begins filming next month. While fans of Glover will have to wait until next year to see him onscreen, Childish Gambino fans can enjoy the rapper’s latest album — “Awaken, My Love!” — today.
Gambino’s third studio album marks another stylistic shift in the rapper’s music; but to understand how much of a change it is, you have to look at his previous albums. Gambino has all but disowned his early mixtapes and independent records, calling them gimmicky and associating them more with his stand-up than his later musical projects. His 2010 mixtape, Culdesac, featured a fair amount of witty, humorous lyrics and clever wordplay, but each subsequent album after that showcased darker, more serious lyrics about Gambino’s real-life problems. While 2011’s Camp received the most commercial recognition of Gambino’s career, rife with pop hooks and beats that mirrored more mainstream tastes, the lyrical content of the album probed the dark and impassioned mindset Gambino sought to explore in his music. As his lyrical content dug deeper, so too did the artistry of his beats. This stylistic change reached its apex on the 2012 mixtape Royalty, which featured a stripped-down, industrial sound with ethereal effects and, at times, sparse vocals. Gambino continued to use this more serious, experimental style on subsequent albums Because the Internet, Kauai, and STN MTN.
“Awaken, My Love!” not only marks a return to the softer side of Childish Gambino, it also marks the debut of Childish Gambino: Vocalist. In a redefining twist, Gambino doesn’t rap on his latest album; not one bit. No rapping, no spoken word; just the shockingly soulful vocals of someone pushing the envelope. Influences of funk, R&B, and Motown can be heard throughout the album, giving “Awaken, My Love!” a more relaxed feel than some of his previous albums. Funky, Hendrix-esque guitar is prominent. Melodic backup singers permeate the majority of the tracks. Funky basslines palpitate ever so subtly in the background. Gambino’s vocals are radiant with spirit and heart. The whole album screams “Soul!” and Gambino appears to have been influenced by the best. He borrows a funktastic beat from George Clinton on the track “Riot”; “California” sounds as if it could’ve been written by Otis Redding himself; “Boogie Man” might as well be an unreleased track from Earth, Wind & Fire; and “Redbone” sounds like a more emotional, modern take on The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23”.
Make no mistake; “Awaken, My Love!” is no cover album spurred by hero worship. While strong influences can be heard throughout the album, Gambino adds a modern touch by blending in the darker style that he’s spent years cultivating. Synthesizer effects, light use of auto-tuning, and jazz-like timing changes give the soulful melodies a jarringly dream-like quality. Even the lyrics of some of the songs on the album feature adult themes that Gambino has played with in his recent work. On the surface “Zombies” sounds like a smooth R&B track; when you study the lyrics, it becomes a disturbing commentary on the inescapability of corporate greed. Similarly, “Terrified” appears to be an atmospheric chill track, but listen closely and it becomes a chilling declaration of eternal love to a woman trying to get away from the speaker. Lastly, “Boogieman” seems like a funk-fueled, upbeat jam; in reality, it’s a raw portrayal of race relations and stereotypes that have come to a boil in this country, accompanied by eerily distorted vocals.
Soul music’s influence on contemporary rap has slowly become more popular lately, in response and contrast to the growing trap trend. Artists like Kanye West and Chance the Rapper have recently revived the genre to intertwine with their own rapping style to create more uplifting tracks than hip hop normally sees. Childish Gambino is going the other way with it; he’s blended soul and funk music with his own mournful style to create something a little unsettling, a little classically romantic, a little uplifting, and wholly entertaining.