One of the worst feelings in life is learning that you’re not very good at something that you try hard for. For me it was drawing, no matter how much I practiced or how many notebooks I filled in with scribbles as a kid nothing I made ever turned out to be anything of note. And since I wasn’t aware of abstract art as a child I quickly hung up that dream and picked up a pencil instead.
I feel as though Donald Glover has come to that realization several times over his over decade long career in the entertainment industry. The 33-year-old has been active in all every form imaginable; acting, directing, writing, stand-up, and as a music artist under the name Childish Gambino. And yet while his ability to work in each of these fields is impressive, it’s important to note that not every venture has been golden.
As Childish Gambino, Glover has come under fire from every direction, from questions about his lack of authenticity to his juvenile lyrics. His first two releases, 2011’s Camp and 2013’s Because the Internet, were met with critical disdain, and for good reason. Those two projects highlighted the fact that Glover, as hard as he tried, could not rap. His whiny yelp didn’t match the braggadocious lyrics, mix that with a healthy dose of fake “wokeness” and you can understand why the critical press wasn’t too keen on Gambino
But that hasn’t stopped a feverish type of following for the Gambino project. Where critics panned his efforts – fans embraced the sad sack melancholy of Gambino’s music. So it should come as no surprise that his newest release, Awaken, My Love!, is being met with the kind of intense excitement. But fans maybe shocked to find that Glover has taken a sharp turn from his usual styling, offering a more funk and soul album this time around.
While this might throw off some of the fans of his past two releases, Awaken, My Love! signals a wonderful change of pace that leads to the first Childish Gambino album that deserves the praise it’s getting.
Right from the start Gambino signals a shift with the album opener ‘Me and Your Mama’. Everything from the productions, which as a beautiful backing choir over a chilling synth line, to Glover’s voice which is more emotive than it’s ever been before. Lyrically the track, as well as the rest of the album, deals with themes of love and loss with a newfound passion in both his words and vocals that adds so much to the record.
This feeling is enhanced by a dreamy funk sound that the album is seeped in. It’s clear Glover has been taking influence from bands like Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone as each track on Awaken sounds ripped from the 60’s. Gambino finds room within the sticky bass lines and smooth drum grooves; in fact this is the first Gambino release that feels like he and the music are complimenting each other, rather than one or the other fighting for the spotlight.
Tracks like ‘Redbone’ and ‘Zombies’ highlight this best of all; Glover’s voice hits all kinds of highs and the production makes it feel like you’re listening to this record in a silk bathrobe next to a fireplace. Along with cuts like, ‘Have Some Love’ and ‘The Night Me and Your Mama Met’, exude a confidence that most of Gambino’s past work has lacked. It’s hard to imagine the Gambino of 2011 making a song as great as ‘Redbone’ or ‘Riot’ and it’s impressive to see Glover’s growth as an artist in this regard.
And that’s probably the most important take away from Awaken…, it signals a smart and ultimately good change for Glover and the Gambino project to a style that better fits his talents. Outside of ‘California’ which is an auto tune mess, there isn’t much bad to say about the album. As someone who hated his past releases this album was a welcoming surprise and hopefully ushers in a newer more confident phase for Gambino project.
Awaken, My Love! is out now via Glassnote.