Review: “Awaken, My Love!” by Childish Gambino
Ask for a description of Donald Glover and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a consistent answer. Known in rap circles as Childish Gambino, he’s also equal parts comedian, actor, and writer, and has an impressive list of projects that only seem to springboard him onto the next. In 2016, we knew him best as Earnest “Earn” Marks, the leading character on FX’s Atlanta, on which he also wrote and executive produced. With Atlanta, Glover had room to flex the bulk of his talents at once, and it seemed as though this project might satisfy his appetite for change.
Then came “Awaken, My Love!”, Glover’s third release under the Childish Gambino pseudonym, and by far his biggest jump yet — a funk album straight out of the Parliament/Funkadelic-era. It bears little resemblance to past rap projects Camp, Because the Internet, and Kauai, save for the twinkling opening of its first track, “Me and Your Mama,” which recalls sun-kissed Kauai. Glover purposely lets us linger here a moment too long so that when we’re finally snatched from this dream with a mad laugh, we fall down his rabbit hole even harder. We meet Glover’s funkified vision head on — the guitar riffs, the echoing screams, the clawing vocals — and it’s further proof from the title that this album demands we sit up and pay attention.
At moments, there are clear instructions, as in “Have Some Love” (“Have a word for your brother/Have some time for one another/Really love one another”), but Glover is more persuasive with feeling. “Redbone,” one of the album’s standout tracks, opens with a cool exhale and a gradual unbinding that gets at its intended purpose even before Glover reaches the kicker (“Stay woke!”). “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” has no lyrics at all, but is by far the most romantic song off the album, somehow communicating a vivid nightscape with “oohs” and “ahhs” alone. And one of the album’s best moments comes on “Terrified,” where nine-year-old JD McCrary interjects with a soulful, reverberating interpretation of the line, “You can’t run from me,” proving that as well as Glover can sing, he still needs someone else to hit the high notes. On the album’s strongest moments, Glover veers toward emotion, purposely conflating and contorting his voice so that we hear what he’s grasping at more than what he actually says.
“Awaken, My Love!” borrows from P-Funk not only in sound, but also in mythology. It’s a smart move when attempting bonafide funk — imagine Funkadelic promise that “out into another reality you will be” without its alien alter egos and costumery, and it quickly becomes clear how much this aesthetic is part and parcel of the music itself. For Glover, the sounds of “Awaken, My Love!” take shape in the album’s psychedelic unveiling at Joshua Tree, its PHONOS virtual reality experience, and the cover art, a glowing, headdressed woman with her eyes rolled back into her head, wild. Add to that the supernatural characters in his songs — zombies, boogiemen, baby boy, and Mama — and he has created a world that we can live in as much as listen to, with ample opportunities to revise and critique our own reality from afar. He digs into racially-driven fear on “Boogieman,” comments on the greed wrought by capitalism with “Zombies,” and manages to capture a more widespread uneasiness with songs like “Riot” and “Terrified.” It is only on the last track, “Stand Tall,” that Glover strips his voice of production and seems to come back down to Earth. “Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall,” he concludes, and sends us back into the world with newfound cosmic armor.
Personal moments like these are reminders that Glover has not intended to entirely replicate ‘70s-era funk, though some of the songs are almost eerily similar. “Have Some Love” sounds directly inspired from Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That,” as does “Redbone” to Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be With You.” It’s not the first time artists have uprooted their sound from decades past (take Leon’s Bridges breakthrough album, Coming Home, which caused more than a few double takes for its likeness to Sam Cooke), and the closer the comparison, the more room there is for criticism. But drawing a strong correlation to Funkadelic isn’t inherently negative, and the quality of this album shouldn’t be lost just because of its similarity.
Of course, the album still does have missteps. Particular stretches of “Boogieman” sound forced and almost satirical, while “Have Some Love” is nice, but noticeably lacks the heart of its counterparts. Much of this is signs of Glover stretching himself too thin, which gets him into trouble in rap as it does with funk, and his want for trying is both his blessing and his curse. Inevitably, some of his risks just don’t pay off. This comes to a head on “California,” a surf rock-esque interlude that oddly features a pan flute, and feels especially out of place in the context of this album. It’s a weak point, but Glover doesn’t let it drag on.
Perhaps the best thing about this album is that, despite some of its rough edges, there is an urgency to it that feels as though Glover had no choice but to make a funk album. It could’ve been his rumored first child that pushed his creative bounds but, more likely, it’s a reaction to culminating tension and growing protests. “How do you start a global revolution, really?” he asked Billboard in an interview preceding his album’s launch. And then, as if to suggest a solution, “There’s something about that ’70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution.” In looking backward, Glover hopes to unearth something that can propel us forward, which is an unlikely strategy especially in light of powerful albums like Lemonade and A Seat at the Table that revel in their “nowness.” But with sheer determination, Glover makes these familiar sounds feel invigorating anew. “Awaken, My Love!” taps into our turmoil, our rage, and our love with an added P-Funk edge that, at any moment, we might all get zapped up into space, anyway. At this point in 2016, who knows.