A Brave New Blerd: Why Childish Gambino’s Rebirth As Funk Activist Is Bumming Me Out

The rapper-actor comes to life on riotous new album “Awaken, My Love!” But I choose to mourn what he’s left behind.

If you were to ask me how I felt about my life at any given moment, I just might respond, “Well, I ain’t doing backflips about it.”

That’s a roundabout way of saying I’m doing fair to dandy. Neither actively depressed about my current lot, but not necessarily overjoyed with it, either. I spend a lot of my waking hours balancing ideas and feelings like a Russian circus bear riding a unicycle. A life in the middle might sound painfully boring, but dashing between highs and lows appears needlessly exhausting. Mostly, I take solace that I’ve set realistic expectations for how I should move throughout the world. It’s done real wonders for my personal life.

I’ve always tried to seek out artists with a similar disposition or dichotomous tendencies. Like Childish Gambino, the nom de rap of actor-writer Donald Glover. Starting with his earliest EPs and mixtapes circa 2008, Gambino performed his own perilous balancing act — splitting the difference between nerdy outcast coping via artistry and this deep-seated desire to belong among rap’s diamond-encrusted elite. It’s a tension between deep personal awareness and fluffy daydreaming that played out expertly across Sick Boi, Culdesac, and I AM JUST A RAPPER (volumes 1 and 2). But then Gambino’s music moved from actor’s hobby to more full-time endeavor, and with it came a slow, subtle shift in his approach on the mic.

2011’s Camp was the theatrical height of Gambino’s inner struggle, years of pain and isolation exploding into brilliant songs about struggling for acceptance and recognizing one’s inner strength. But by 2013’s Because The Internet (and to a lesser degree 2014’s Kauai EP), the shifts in Gambino’s personal life and creative choices had became far more observable. Though rapping remained his bread and butter (“Sweatpants” is a career high), Gambino began to hone his sound more carefully, adopting a set aesthetic that felt more deliberate than any time before. Now, the evolution continues with album №3, “Awaken, My Love!” Inspired by The Delfonics and Funkadelic, it’s Gambino exploring the hallowed halls of black music and emerging with a sound comprised of funk grooves, soulful falsettos, and lyrics distilled into the most essential tidbits, all filtered through the lens of a post-Yeezus world.

In just a few short years, Gambino is all but unrecognizable as both adult male and musical entity.

As fans, we’re meant to applaud that growth. By following an artist in his or her individual development, we can find some kind of joy-by-proxy, like the swell parents feel when their kid finally ditches training wheels. On the one hand, there is a sense of pride in witnessing Gambino’s maturation. This new, more soulful sound is clearly made by a man with the confidence to form a cohesive musical vision and pursue it head-on. Especially given the core of the album’s content — minimalist protests against greed, violence, and stupidity, all coupled with his emerging hopes and doubts as a new dad.

That’s no small feat, and it makes for a great narrative from the audience’s perspective. But selfishly, I mourn the loss of the Old Gambino, the one who lacked cohesiveness and instead felt unsure. The scrappy kid battling for a place in the world with biting wit and intellect. There was a bond with that funny blerd, a connection that transcends culture and location and drives at how people see themselves within the larger world. You can’t halt the future, so that means it’s on me as a long-time Gambino follower to try and reconcile who he is now with the artist I’ll always cherish.

Part of that is recognizing that at his core, Glover/Gambino isn’t the man he was 2 to 3 years ago, in obvious and more subtle ways. He’s got not only this anticipated new album, but a hit show in “Atlanta,” the birth of aforementioned bundle of joy, and, perhaps most awesome of all, a sweet gig as young Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo flick. The guy’s winning life big time, so it’s not hard to see why he might make a big creative jump.

He’s feeling himself in a way that he maybe hasn’t before — at least as perpetuated by his recordings — and turning to funk and soul seems like a proper place to move one’s creative interests. It’s a multifaceted scene that’s all about community and the power of peace and love and transcending life’s meager problems for a shimmery place in another dimension. There’s lots to process on the record— like stepping up emotionally as an adult and addressing those somewhat vague social concerns — but it all feels like a really groovy victory lap. He’s confident enough to step outside that head of his and be a symbol for something big and progressive. It takes a certain swagger to think you can do just that, a sense of self that’s been lacking in past LPs. (It’s another kind of confidence to simply rap about the girls you’ve bedded.)

Which brings me back to my own life and that distinct lack of backflipping. Without needlessly unfurling a sob story, I can’t say I have as much going on as Gambino. Instead, I’ve hit a comfortable groove of work and friends and eating and sleeping and playing with my dog. Therein lies the problem: This man with whom I related too for so long, with thick strands of commonality criss-crossing our two lives, has vaulted past me in so many ways (emotionally, in achieving basic life goals, etc.) With most artists, that disconnect is negligible; I don’t need to be on the same level as Busta Rhymes to enjoy “Pass the Courvoisier” in the least bit. Gambino, though, is much different — he’s long been a huge part of my pop culture vocabulary. A person I can use to highlight who I am and what I believe in as an aficionado of art.

The fact that I don’t think we’re in the same bubble anymore means that I have to face some hard truths about my life and the value of that perceived connection. It’s not that I need to call my mom more or finally go backpacking through Honduras (though I totally should). Rather, it’s another reminder that great music helps us understand who we are and where we’ve landed ourselves in life, like some kind of mirror made of Auto-Tune and sweet basslines. It’s not always fun to have to face the end results, but the best music does so in a way that’s incremental, letting the listener unearth personal truths over repeated listens.

It’s about seeing something of emotional value in the music — or the lack thereof — and wanting to explore what all that means to you as a consumer and human being. For years, Gambino and I spoke much of the same language, and now that we don’t, it’s time for some reevaluation. Maybe that means his music helps me grow as a person, or I’m simply aware of the greater scope of my actions and can react accordingly. It’s not enough that songs simply stir up certain feelings or ideas; they have to become a kind of sounding board for people. Gambino’s music has always served that role, and his battle to understand himself has been a constant reminder for the wonders of regular self evaluation and what finding perspective can offer a person.

As part of said soul searching, I got to thinking more carefully about the emotional content of the album. Gambino may seem more connected with life and trying to create his own vibe, but does that necessarily make for better art? Does truly impactful music come from a place of profound happiness or pronounced sadness? Do we want to celebrate alongside an artist’s personal highs or commiserate their downfalls instead?

In 2010, a Columbia Business School professor named Modupe Akinola organized a rather ingenious experiment to answer the age old question of why people believe sadness is the ultimate creative power source. As part of the process, a group of students delivered speeches about their dream jobs, at which point they were given a random evaluation that was either positive or negative in scope. Once they’d been either torn down or lifted up, the students had to create collages of their feelings, which were then critiqued by professional artists. What Akinola found was that people who received the worse reviews had collages that were deemed more artistic or simply enjoyable. This was further supported by low levels of the hormone DHEA, which has been linked to depression and mood swings.

So what about all of this angst that proves so fruitful for creative pursuits? Speaking with Wired, social psychologist Joe Forgas mentioned that sadness and similar emotions promote “information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations.” That is, these emotions increase those brain functions required for creativity, like an attention to details and better recall.

In an essay for Aeon, Adam Roberts, a professor of English literature at Royal Holloway University, agreed that sadness has a profound effect on the brain, leading to the creation of great art “in a way that grinningly eating ice cream in your underpants cannot.” Roberts believes that most of the sociological and anthropological data and analysis that’s available points to sadness being “a kind of conspicuous consumption,” clarifying that “it takes more muscles to frown than smile, and maybe that’s the point.” Being sad “signals ones capacity to squander a resource precisely by squandering it. Any fool can live and be happy. It takes greater strength to live and be sad.”

Perhaps it’s not that art made while depressed is inherently better than art made in the midst of joy. Being down in the dumps simply wakes us up to the world around us, making us cognizant of all the dirt and chaos, the sunshine and smiling faces. That level of awareness is a huge source of interesting art, and means the creator has more to explore and manipulate. It’s like painting with 100 color variations versus using only green and purple. That’s especially noteworthy when considering the work of Gambino. In his early days, when he was feverishly trying to decipher his role in popular culture, his work seemed to explode with every color of the emotional rainbow. His musical choices jumped between Grizzly Bear samples and gospel music. There was nuance and detail in his rants, from obsessing about pretty girls to dealing with racial epitaphs to wanting to be the master of his creative destiny. It seems now he’s working with a much smaller bag of tricks. Deliberate for sure, but maybe also the result of simple biology?

To some degree that means he’s more focused than during other parts of his career, and having just a few ideas that he’s interested in or compelled to explore makes more succinct art. However, he achieves this even-keeled approach by foregoing some of the angst that comes with struggling through all these feelings and observations and ideas swirling about your head. Being happy means you don’t have as much stimuli and random thoughts to contend with, and that just leads to art that feels needlessly muted. It’s not that tortured artists are somehow to be worshiped, but a bit of torturing clearly makes people into artists worth some celebrating.

Happiness might make you into a less effective artist, but it does have its share of benefits. There have been several studies, including one from Vanderbilt University, that demonstrate how creative expression can boost your mood significantly. Or as one study entitled “Quantifying and Valuing the Well-Being Impacts of Culture and Sport” explained, arts participation was “found to be associated with higher wellbeing. This is valued at £1,084 ($1,380) per person per year.” All of that leads me to wonder if happiness is the end result of every creative outcome. Now, there’s some noticeable counter arguments, especially since, no matter the career heights, there’s been loads of depressive musical acts. Still, it seems like to create is just a way to heal the soul, even if the end result is only a partially well-adjusted humanoid.

No matter what you’re working on, every line off text, vocal note, and fresh brush stroke is taking you closer to becoming a better person than before you began that song/painting/etc. At what point does the tortured artist then become someone resembling a happy person? All of that hard work might inevitably tear away those feelings of anger or confusion, and once those are gone, what kind of art is left to be made? If we listen to the experts, its pieces that are less meaningful based solely on the tools with which they were created (your goofy smile, according to professor Roberts). The whole thing smacks of infinite feedback loop. Where someone creates art to become happier, and when that joy cripples certain creative instincts, they have to wait until they bottom out to start again.

Being angry or miserable might make for better songs or paintings or movies (at least subjectively), but who wouldn’t give all that up for a little peace and an easy shot at some happiness? Who wouldn’t then, understanding perhaps the end goal, not just make happy or hopeful music as a way of speeding up the process? Why not shoot for the sentimental moon, knowing the results and sheer inevitably of your arrival?

We think so many artists are sellouts for moving on to simplistic or even borderline vacuous material, but perhaps they know something the rest of us can’t recognize. Not that I’m giving Top 40 acts a break for singing exclusively about their baes, but happiness could be better for the artist as a whole. A sunny disposition just seems like something you’d want to uplift with your art and spread like a big fluffy wildfire. For Gambino, it feels like a huge reward after years of struggling to fit in and find something to celebrate (even if it’s things like a California sunset or friendship). If there’s someone who earned that chance to shake off the negativity, it’s Gambino, and he’s embraced this new status. What the LP might lack in direct emotional impact compared to past efforts, it more than makes up for in simple joy. An excitement about being alive and standing up for one’s true beliefs.

Happiness is the lofty end goal, though. In pursuit of that lil’ slice of prosperity, artists change their sonic identity with some frequency. A new sound means you are then recast as something that reflects a different aesthetic or worldview. (Maybe that in and of itself is a form of happiness — continuous rebirth into ward whatever you want to be creatively.) The fans, meanwhile, are left trying to decide how this new chapter fits into the larger narrative of their favorite artist’s lengthy career. In terms of Gambino’s development from dick joke-making backpacker to crafter of soul-stirring soundscapes, “Awaken…” is technically underwhelming.

The album’s core sound seems to rely too heavily on the most elemental strands of funk. Lots of chunky guitar chords, layered harmonies, and a vocal styling ripped from the Sly Stone playbook. There’s a few bright spots: “Riot” grooves fast and hard, keeping the margin of error tight, while album closer “Stand Tall” is a sprawling six minutes of profound emotion, raw intensity, and a sonic narrative that expertly ebbs and flows. Meanwhile, tracks like “Redbone” and “Baby Boy” are enjoyable in their simplicity. But too often Gambino censors his otherwise cutting wit and inventive lyricism by tackling overly simplistic ideas of protest music in tunes like “Zombies,” “Have Some Love,” and “California.” That kind of kid glove handling counters the extra fiery jams of more established acts — D’Angelo, Sharon Jones, etc. — who bring a surge that Gambino might not capture given a dozen more funk albums.

He’s sung about equally heady topics with greater vigor on earlier efforts, and it feels like he’s catering to an audience who’d rather be spoon-fed hackneyed mantras than inventive personal insights. Therein lies my major concern with writing from a place of joy: It clearly seems to ruin great artists by forcing them to avoid substance. Either because they’re too afraid to bring down the mood or they’d rather stumble through the daisies than go back to a place of emotional and intellectual intensity. Again, all the props in the world for Gambino finding a niche of decency in this world. But if albums are products — and, despite their artistic merit, they’re just like that spicy chicken sandwich or leather purse — then I’m mostly an unsatisfied customer feeling deeply disconnected from a beloved artist.

As with any lackluster consumer transaction, that leads me to wonder if the album was truly worth the effort. Because it’s one thing that Gambino’s achieved personal joy and wanted to explore those feelings. But in instances like this, where you’re not getting something concrete from the artist, it really stirs up questions of continued support. More than likely I’m an outlier in regards to this LP’s value, and the loss of my “business” isn’t a major concern for Gambino. There are countless others who will support him for what he’s done with “Awaken”, and so long as they spend their money or even just offer their precious attention, that demonstrates that Gambino made the right choices. It’s those warm praises, no matter how unrealistic or lacking context, that can become the bedstone of an entire career.

But my hater-ation comes from a place of goodness. (Mostly.) There is now one less guy out there who sees the world the way I do, split between pure beauty and outright malice. Or at the very least bothered by life’s cavalcade of asinine behavior but too unsure to act lest he fatally misstep. It’s why I’m more than happy to accept the role of poisonous hater and take potshots as need be. Because every act needs that kind of perspective to function properly. Not that it might lead Gambino back to The Way It Was Before, though that’d be a stellar accomplishment. And given his increasingly brave choices as an artist, he’s bound to make another jump all on his own in time for album №4. If nothing else, my disapproval is just another way to uncover emotional treasure at the end of this album.

Specifically, this sizable disconnect just further reinforces my belief that losers never win. Guys like myself traipse through life half-cocked, satisfied but always waiting for the bottom to fall out. This record is proof that there is no grand, transcendent future for men of my particular disposition. If you really want to excel, something has to mutate within your very being. You’ve got to unload your animosity and accept the world’s beauty and spend all night and day in the big shimmery disco party. To try and bury all that darkness in a blitz of song and dance, never stopping the soul train for a second lest you let what’s lurking outside win.

I’m not sure I can accept that change on an individual level, because feeling this way has always come natural. And when I heard it echoed back to me by guys like Gambino, flashing the same weirdo SOS in the dark, I felt less lonely and more assured of my worldly assumptions. Now it’s just me and my thoughts, while Gambino moves on to the latest song and the next big movement. Maybe I’m overhyping the decision; it’s not as if he ripped my heart out or told everyone I sleep in footie pajamas. Still, it feels just a wee bit dimmer in the world of slightly cynical folks like myself, and a great voice has decided to accept something truly scary: Optimism.

It’s aimless to dump on a guy for maturing, but if there’s something that’s severely lacking in this world, it’s the cold, uncomfortable bubble of dreary-eyed realism. Gambino could come back around, and if he does, I’ll welcome him with loving arms. Or he’ll get further away from my vision of his artistic merit. Luckily, when someone’s opened up their heart to you in the past, and given you some brief solace via pop music, they’re never too far removed. That alone gives this guy a couple good reasons to look on the bright side.

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