Album Review: Childish Gambino- “Awaken, My Love!”

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Donald Glover has had a hell of year. In addition to starting a new TV show in the form of Atlanta (a great show you should totally be watching by the way), his would-be alter ego Childish Gambino has dropped a new album, dramatically titled “Awaken, My Love!”. Not only is it his first full-length record since 2013’s Because The Internet, it also represents a major overhaul in the guy’s music itself. Some have been predicting that Gambino would stray further and further from the quirky hip hop he’s known for, but I don’t think anyone thought he would do it this quickly and this drastically. Just a look at the tracklist reveals something different going on. This album’s quick eleven tracks signals a departure from the twenty or so tracks of Because The Internet. From this glance, you might also notice that three of the eleven songs are over six minutes in length. And, to get it out of way early, there is no rapping on “Awaken, My Love!”, a pretty ballsy move considering Glover’s zany punchlines are part of what drew me to his music in the first place. If anything, I was expecting a poppy, modern R&B record with big melodic hooks like that of those on past songs like “3005” or “Sober”. But what he’s unleashed here is not even in the ballpark of what I had guessed.

Even what genre this fits into is a bit difficult to place. At it’s core, you could say it’s a smooth funk album with a twinge of psychedelia, but as I write those words the aural image that brings up doesn’t quite fit my idea of what this album sounds like. I can even hear some prog-rock tendencies if I squint my ears at it, especially in the opening centerpiece, “Me And Your Mama”, a six and a half minute, multi-part suite that shuffles a central motif through three different distinct sections.  A major stylistic anchor here is the juxtaposition of modern and retro sounds. Old school e-pianos and wah-pedal guitars might share a track with rattly 808 hi-hats and digital synth pads, and everything is glued together by this omnipresent hazy atmosphere. This may not gel well with you if you’re looking for bangers, there’s no obvious single in the vein of “3005” or “Sweatpants”. In fact, a lot of what appeals to me about this project is the nature of the songs to just coast along without shoving a whole lot into your face. Many of these tracks let the song fade out of view and settle nicely into drawn out jams. And while many artists may fail in trying to write in this style, the grooves here are so smooth that one can’t help but be hypnotized by the buttery instrumentation.

And while we’re on the topic of instrumentation, I have to say, the production on this album is nothing short of masterful. This album, to an production nerd like me, is audio velvet. There are parts on this record that are jaw droopingly gorgeous, especially the glockenspiel hook on “Redbone”. I’m super impressed at these arrangements as well, which somehow walk the tightrope of punchy and ethereal absolutely perfectly. Whereas the Weekend album I reviewed earlier this week sounded cold and detached (which to be fair fit the lyrical themes of that album perfectly), this is warm and inviting in a way that you almost never hear on modern records. But beyond the production, there seems to be a running theme here lyrically as well. Similar Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, one of my absolute favorite albums from this year, a lot of the lyrics seem to be linked to parenthood in some way, although here it’s a little more veiled, preventing me from calling this a concept album per say, but the lyrical cohesion I think helps hold a lot of the tracks together as a sequence.

The only real misstep I can think of here is the track “California”, and, what can I say, it’s fuckin’ dumb. It’s just this stupid tropical beat with Gambino blubbering incoherently through some creaky autotune that just randomly cuts off after one or two choruses. The only positive interpretation I can muster is that it could just be a ridiculous parody of trendy mumble rappers like Future or Lil Yachty. Even then, it’s an obvious throwaway and it clashes hilariously with the transcendent sounds of the rest of the album.

One dumb track aside, this record surprised me in a way that few releases have this year. Gambino had a successful formula that he could have milked for another album, but he went out on a limb to fantastic results. This is probably going to be my go to late night album in the years to come, and I shall look forward to it every time I spin it.

Standout Tracks:

-Redbone

-Me And Your Mama

-Have Some Love

-Zombies

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