This album is not for everyone. That’s okay. But as a Donald Glover stan (obsessive fan) I knew that it was going to be very hard for me to dislike this album. That being said, let me try to speak from both sides of the spectrum.
Donald Glover started his music career with pop rap beats and a cartoonish flow under the name, Childish Gambino. His first album, Camp, was at one time, my favorite rap album of all time. It’s honest, beautiful at times, and confessional. It received mixed reviews from critics, who panned his nerdy and sometimes cringe worthy lyrics. Pitchfork’s scalding now infamous review, rips into what Glover could not accomplish on his first album. While catchy and creative, it best demonstrates the artistic immaturity of Glover that attracted white girls to high-school males.
His next album, Because The Internet, showed Glover coming into his own and embracing a larger than life rap persona. He boasted as he spoke from the persona of “The Boy”, a character he created that lives in California off his father’s wealth. The Boy’s story is told through a 72-page screenplay that accompanies the album. The screenplay comes with vinyl copies of the album. Because The Internet was wildly accepted by fans but only swayed critics in Gambino’s favor slightly.
On Childish Gambino’s third album, he has abandoned all signs of rap. This move could have been anticipated by the music on Gambino’s last Mixtape/EP, STN MTN/Kauai. While STN MTN shows Gambino riding off the wave that he created with Because The Internet, Kauai sees Gambino rapping minimally and filling most of the 7-tracks with R&B style singing. On Awaken, My Love!, Gambino takes influence from acts such as Funkadelic, Sly & The Family Stone, and Prince. Creating his most diverse, and impressive album yet.
If you ask any average Gambino fan that wasn’t impressed with the album, they’ll either tell you it sucked because there was no rapping, or that the singles were great but the album wasn’t. The latter isn’t necessarily wrong. Awaken My Love, isn’t easy on the ears if you don’t let it be. By premiering singles, “Me and Your Mama” and “Redbone” before the album’s release, listeners were given a higher expectation for the album’s content. That might have been Glover’s mistake. If Glover stuck to the approach of how the album came all at once like how listeners heard it first at Pharos, the element of surprise could have changed the initial reaction of the public.
Pharos was an event put on by Glover where listeners paid to go to Joshua Tree to hear the album first. Glover performed the album front to back for listeners in a bizarre atmosphere consisting of stars, tribal paint and monsters. Those in attendance were not allowed to bring phones into the event so that the public would not know what to expect when the album was released. Footage of the performance was recorded and has slowly been released to the public in virtual reality fashion. Glover has even started selling pre-orders for a virtual reality vinyl of the album.“Me and Your Mama” is a fantastic opening track to the album. The guitars are crunchy and distorted with Glover channeling the passion of Prince into his vocals in an almost screaming fashion. It was the first single released and sets the album for high expectations.
“Have Some Love” kicks off with infectious thumping drums. Lyrically, the song is about how we have to stick together and love one another, an appropriate subject for America’s current situation with Donald Trump as our President-elect. The song is built off a beautiful choir but is the first song to introduce Glover’s strange vocal tones. This does not change throughout the album.
“Boogieman” continues the energy that “Me and Your Mama” introduced at the top of the album. Again, Glover’s vocals during the verse sound strange, almost cartoonish like on this track especially. It gives off the vibe that it’s almost making fun of itself in a sense. The hook on this song is insanely catchy though and makes for a easily re-playable track.
“Zombies” like the title suggests, sets a very creepy atmosphere. Both the buzzing of the guitar and the moaning of the choir creates an uneasy but intriguing feeling. This song is lyrically about those who feed off of your success, wealth and value. This is one of my favorite tracks on the album because of the mind-melting solo at the end of the track. The very talented Ludwig Göransson handles most of the guitar and production on the album and is a longtime collaborator with Glover after meeting during Community. The acclaimed show Glover starred in and Göransson composed the music for.
“Riot” is arguably the most energetic song on the album. It’s also the shortest at only about two minutes long. Members of Funkadelic, George Clinton, Eddie Hazel, and Fuzzy Haskins are all credited as co-writers on this song as well. It’s fun and punchy but also mildly forgettable.
The first time I heard “Redbone”, it seriously messed with my mind. Is this the same Gambino? The vocals sound pitched up but according to Gambino, just involves him singing differently. The song is about “staying woke”, a term that encourages awareness to the culture surrounding you. It’s an incredibly soulful, sexy ballad that only grows on you with time.
“California” is easily the most polarizing track on the album. While the production is tropical, relaxing and beautifully arranged, Gambino’s vocals are not. They sound strained, and almost has a Jamaican ring to them. Auto-tune is a very present force in the recording of this song and really take away from the feel of the track overall.
“Terrified” was one of my other favorites the first time I heard the album. It came as a break from the constant vocal distortions throughout the album and heavily features the vocals from Gambino that we naturally expect. It’s a deeper cut that features some impressive vocals at the back end of the track from 9 year-old JD McCrary.
“Baby Boy”, another stand out off the album, follows Glover talking to his presumed newborn son. Rumors got out that Glover had became a father back in October, but details didn’t emerge past that. Glover urges his child that he must ‘Walk Tall’, which comes into play at the end of the album. The song is built off a creepy organ and Glover’s high pitched vocals. After a small instrumental interlude, Glover’s vocals erupt into passionate screaming as if his boy was growing up before his eyes and there was nothing he could do to stop it. A truly beautiful moment.
Personally, I’m a sucker for random instrumental tracks with no vocals. I think it adds to the art of the project. “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” plays as the soundtrack to an imaginary first date in which Glover and his girlfriend/wife first meet and how Glover will then describe that date to his son. At least, that’s how I envision it. It’s calming, smooth and emotional. The track is built off a choir of “ooo’s” and a smooth guitar with a synth that cracks like a whip at the climax of guitar strums.
“Stand Tall” acts as the proper outro to Awaken My Love!, an ode to Glover’s parents who gave him the message that if he is confident, he can accomplish anything. The song begins slow and morphs into a powerful ballad showcasing a variety of instruments. The choir leads with the repeated line “Keep all your dreams, keeping standing tall/if you are strong you cannot fall”. The song hits a climax at the end of the song with Glover’s passionate vocals coming into play again with a rhythmic guitar and drum combo. The synths add another level of passion to the song as well. The song ends very abruptly leaving listeners to wonder if Glover has a hidden track recorded for the album. Seeming as he has released a photo describing the optimal way to listen to the album that tracks the album as roughly 4 minutes longer than the actual duration, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the vinyl contained a hidden track.
Childish Gambino’s Awaken My Love will take a couple tracks to digest for the casual listener. It’s a fantastic piece of art that while not perfect, is perfect at what it is. While this may be Gambino’s only dive into Funk, it truly gets better with every listen. The vocal distortion that can get annoying on the first listen, adds to the project as a whole and is eventually accepted for what it is. Awaken, My Love! was made for nature walks and long night drives. It’s terrifying, sexy, and powerful all at once. Awaken My Love is not an album that can be easily described to another. Forget all the reviews you have read online thus far and go listen to Awaken My Love by yourself and take it all in. Because trust me, there’s a lot.
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