Donald Glover, better known as artist Childish Gambino, has taken a major step into the intensely passionate, humid world of 70s funk and R&B and out of the carefree land of tongue-twisted humor and bars for days. His third studio album, entitled “Awaken, My Love!,” demonstrates Glover’s versatility and artistry while taking a notably risky departure from his previous style.
Not one track on Awaken features any semblance of rap or stylistic tendancies from Glover’s Camp (2011) or Because the Internet (2013). Some would say that his transition from rap figure to psychedelic superstar began with his EP, Kauai, which featured more thoughtfully instrumental tracks like “Late Night in Kauai” and “The Palisades.” But, no matter what, throughout that project Glover maintained his usual presence with at least some harmonization or rap contribution.
This is not true for Awaken. The tracklist of the album plays off like a laundry list of vintage hits that distort and mangle Glover’s voice beyond recognition. In “Me and Your Mama,” the twinkly intro with a simple piano quickly devolves into an R&B synth coupled with falsetto, breathy backup vocals. This lays the foundation for the electric rock guitar riff that makes way for Glover’s howling voice. Raggedly singing with passion, Glover exhibits a sound we’ve never heard from him before. This pattern is reiterated throughout the album in other tracks, such as “Have Some Love,” “Boogieman,” “Riot,” “Redbone,” and “California.” All of these contain guitar and rhythm sounds reminiscent of Cage the Elephant with an R&B twist
The inspiration for this jump in style is clear to Glover. “Awaken, My Love!,” according to a Nov. 17 interview with the artist in Billboard, began with a childhood memory.
“I remember listening to songs my dad would play—albums by the Isleys or Funkadelic—and not understanding the feeling I was feeling,” he said. “I remember hearing a Funkadelic scream and being like, “Wow, that’s sexual and it’s scary.’ Not having a name for that, though; just having a feeling. That’s what made it great.”
This description could not describe the track “Boogieman” any better. Outfitted with voice changes, screeches, maniacal laughs, and more, the song’s studio embellishments prompt listeners to envision Glover as a mix of Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix.
Beyond these electronic and synthetic additions to the songs, the emotional messages behind the them is palpable. “Zombies” explores the downsides of fame and those that exploit your artistry for money. “They can smell your money/And they want your soul,” Glover sings. “We’re coming out to get you/We’re all so glad we met you/We’re eating you for profit/There is no way to stop it.” In “Stand Tall,” Glover recalls past advice from his parents, singing, ““Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall/If you are strong you cannot fall/There is a voice inside us all/So smile when you can, when you can.”
But the trials and tribulations of love and unrequited love take main stage in the album. In “Baby Boy,” Glover discusses complicated relationships while singing, “All the pain, all the tears/Many nights, many years/This love for me is fading/You waited, but I never came home to you.” This theme is brought up once again in “Have Some Love” in the lyrics, “Really love one another/It’s so hard to find.”
No matter what, the album cycled back to the same sound with similar guitar riffs and vocals. Through this, the album, overall, serves more as an expression of inner emotion. Where Glover’s previous works were seemingly “verbal acrobatics,” as Weiner describes them, he calls Awaken as “an exercise in just feeling and tone.”
Some could say this exercise has gone too far. While some tracks barely feature a recognizable Glover’s voice, “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” doesn’t at all. The instrumental harmonization of backup vocals and guitar embodies the peaks and pitfalls in a night of passion without including a single word.
No one can deny the sheer mastery found on the album, but it’s tough to say whether this is the right direction for Glover. Although this shift in sound may not have completely come out of left-field, it should still take listeners by surprise. What Glover plans to do with his newfound funk is beyond prediction, but it will surely satisfy his artistic and daring self.
Featured Image By Glassnote Records