Arts, Music, Review

Childish Gambino’s Experimental ‘3.15.20.’ Is a Success

He is the creator and occasional director of the show Atlanta and a two-time Golden Globe and Emmy winner. He is a comedian whose show, Weirdo, is one of the most idiosyncratic and original stand-up specials out there. Beyond that, under his rap moniker Childish Gambino, he released two albums in the 2010s, Because the Internet and Camp, which together generated a cult following. Breaking into the mainstream with Awaken My Love!, followed by the song-and-video cultural movement that was “This is America,” he’s received recognition as one of the brightest talents in the entertainment world. Donald Glover has become our generation’s Renaissance man. 

Childish Gambino’s newest project, 3.15.20.—originally released on March 15 on his website and later distributed via streaming on March 22—features minimal, all-white cover art along with song titles that are merely time stamps, save two tracks. The sound itself draws on a diverse range of influences, some of which have already been explored in Glover’s other works. There are groovy drum patterns and breezy guitar licks that recall the Caribbean-inspired sound of his Guava Island soundtrack, along with soulful cuts à la Awaken My Love! and the raw emotional energy of smash hit “Redbone.” What is most significant about his newest project, however, is Glover’s foray into experimental instrumentation and production. While he has shattered genre conventions since the beginning, Glover now departs from any distinct sound into one utterly his own. 

After an atmospheric, spacey intro, Glover transitions into “Algorythm,” a track with a pulsating, hypnotic beat and toned-down distorted vocals. Paired with the doom-and-gloom instrumentation are ambiguous, Orwellian lyrics like “so very scary, so binary, zero or one, like code is like coal mine canary.” The next track, “Time,” includes heavy ’80s-influenced synths along with an Ariana Grande feature that gels brilliantly with the song’s pop sensibilities. The best feature comes on the following track “12.38,” where 21 Savage delivers witty bars over a funky beat.

These two opening tracks introduce the heavy use of synths and autotune that will continue to be prominent throughout the album. Furthermore, the driving percussion is clearly influenced by Ludwig Göransson, a producer on five tracks as well as a key contributor on “This Is America” and much of the Black Panther soundtrack. His instrumental know-how helps Glover entertain some of his most adventurous ideas yet. 

Perhaps the most out-there, experimental sounds on the album arrive with “32.22.” The track features a dark, thumping drum pattern alongside Glover’s anxiously mumbled lines, which are barely understandable. The tension and anticipation builds to a chorus composed of heavy bass distortion and industrial whirring. Glover yells “Fire” over and over before cryptically declaring, “Billie Jean is on fire.” The sinister mood of the song has a manic intensity similar to Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” and the electronic repetition calls to mind LCD Soundsystem’s seminal record Sound of Silver.

For all his success with forays into different genres, Glover’s highlights on the album remain the neo-soul anthems that are funky, groovy, and simply a ton of fun. As he croons over lush electric guitar melodies on “24.19,” he could be mistaken for Frank Ocean in parts of Blonde. Some of his humming and repeated falsetto shrieks of “And I love you, yes I do” even, dare I say, call to mind the beautiful vocal performance by the late, great Prince on “Adore.” With comparisons as diverse as LCD Soundsystem, Frank Ocean, and Prince, the album could lose its way, but 3.15.20.’s explorations of different sounds are held together by a common thematic focus. 

This project sees Glover embracing self-love regardless of outside criticism. On “19.10,” he sings, “To be beautiful is to be hunted / I can’t change the truth, I can’t get you used to this” before stating in the outro, “We are beautiful / That’s so beautiful.” More broadly, he criticizes a society that lacks empathy and direction. There is an anxiety about the present and future that runs through many of the lyrics. 

On his previously released breezy jam “Feels Like Summer,” Glover sings, “Seven billion souls that move around the sun / Rolling faster, fast and not a chance to slow down” and “Air that kill the bees that we depend upon / Birds were made for singing / Waking up to no sound / No sound.” The music on this song is effortlessly carefree, yet the lyrics point to a more ominous state of affairs, almost suggesting we are falling precipitously to our own demise. Notably, the album was first released on the Ides of March, so take that as you will.

Not all of the ideas on 3.15.20. work out. For example, “35.31” is an experiment with country music that doesn’t pan out perfectly. Nevertheless, what’s important is Glover’s willingness to try it. Once signed to a big label, artists can—and many do—show up to the studio, churn out a hit, and collect their paycheck. Yet throughout his career, Glover has remained in a state of constant transformation, always moving forward and expanding his sound. On this effort, Childish Gambino proves once again that he is one of the most innovative artists in the entertainment industry and that his music is anything but juvenile.

Featured Image by Wolf+Rothstein / Liberator Music

March 29, 2020