I first heard Childish Gambino in the car about a year ago when my friend played on the pop-flavored love hit “3005”. It’s a fun track: Gambino raps over a playful beat with characteristic coolness. He’s elusive, a little insecure and indulges in what is essentially a stream of consciousness dialogue with himself. After digging around his earlier mix-tapes it became clear to me that Gambino wanted desperately to come across as a rapper who was smart and talented, but also cool and blasé. He was like those kids who proclaim themselves to be “nerds” without actually, like, having real social ineptitudes.
Perhaps such an attitude is among the perils of being a polyglot. Gambino’s actual name is Donald Glover, and he’s a decidedly successful comedian, actor and writer. He’s talented, without a doubt, but he always seemed to know as much, and I could never really enjoy his music.
Then, Gambino released “Awaken, My Love!”, an album soaked in the funk motifs of groups like Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone. His voice is weird and high and wild, and the grooves he layers are just delectable. What makes this LP most unique and impressive to me is simply that it is evident that Gambino cared. The opening track “Me and Your Mama” is patient, with a piano crescendo preceding a sharp and focused beat. The vocal layers and dizzying synthetic drums render the track truly mesmerizing. The second track, “Have Some Love” hearkens back to the 1970s zeitgeist of lovin’ thy brotha’—he honors funk tradition and gives it a contemporary zest rather than mocking it with the sort of nonchalance I’d come to expect from Gambino. On “Zombies”, Gambino’s voice mirrors the distorted production of the song—this also happens on “California”, which contains vocals so viscerally disquieting as to be somehow admirable. The magnetic center of “Awaken, My Love!” is the song “Redbone”, which swoons with soul and is silky and sexy in its unflinching panache and verve.
“Awaken, My Love!” isn’t all retro, though.
Towards the latter end of the album, Gambino addresses his son, who was born earlier in 2016: “I don’t wanna leave you, I don’t wanna deceive you / but oh, when mama cries from daddy’s lies / oh my, please don’t take him away”. By the end of the album, Gambino gets personal, but not in an insecure, dodgy way. He sings with earnestness—he delivers with his heart rather than his brain.
This album isn’t without its imperfections, of course. The lyrics towards the beginning of the album can at times fall short, and Gambino does edge on Funkadelic mimicry at certain points, but honestly, this EP is an absolute blast. The production is immaculate, the vocal layers are dizzying, and watching Gambino evolve as an artist and experiment with a diverse palate of sonic textures is incredibly rewarding.
I think, more than anything, “Awaken, My Love!” is a testament to the soul as an instrument beyond compare—from Gambino’s corybantic pipes to the album’s golden groove. I anticipate whatever comes next from Mr. Gambino.
Score (out of 5.0):