On Donald Glover’s first album as Childish Gambino, he talked about a lesson he learned as a kid. After confessing his feelings to his summer camp crush, the girl betrayed his trust and told her friends, who immediately laughed at him. Glover recalled, “I told you something. It was just for you and you told everybody. So I learned cut out the middle man, make it all for everybody, always.” On his third effort “Awaken, My Love!”, the lesson finally hits home.
In the years since his acting debut on the NBC sitcom “Community,” Donald Glover has released three albums under the stage name Childish Gambino and has expanded his acting and directing career. His most recent record, “Awaken, My Love!”, is an abrupt shift in sound and a stunning representation of the growth Glover has experienced from his accomplishments.
“Me and Your Mama,” the lead single and opener of the album, begins with a hip hop slow jam beat not unlike earlier Gambino songs. However, the similarities with “Camp” and “Because the Internet” end two minutes into this first song, when the music explodes into an epic rock piece with blues rock guitar and impassioned singing. Gambino belts out pleas for his love interest to “let me into your heart”. It’s a stark shift from his earlier works, not only musically, but also lyrically: what used to be superficial themes of sex appeal are now cries of love and romance.
“Have Some Love” follows, a raw Funkadelic tribute that preaches “have a word for your brother, have some time for one another, really love one another, it’s so hard to find.” The song introduces the album’s theme of combating and coping with racism and hate.
The funk continues with “Boogieman” and “Zombies,” two metaphors for how the white majority both fears and consumes African-Americans and their culture. Glover feels like he is being preyed on as the “Zombies” sing “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.” The sentiment—and not to mention the funk—is reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and while these two songs are almost too musically and thematically similar, they certainly work on their own.
“Riot” is a short rock song that closes out the album’s first act and ushers in the second act with “Redbone,” perhaps the album’s best track. The slow jam features Childish Gambino doing his best Prince impression while warning his audience to “stay woke.” The Black Lives Matter slogan parallels the anxiety captured by the song’s instrumentation.
“California” is the record’s one misstep, as its upbeat nature and lack of deep meaning break the flow that was beginning to develop so well with “Riot” and “Redbone.” The album gets back on track with “Terrified,” yet another strong demonstration of tone as Gambino channels his fear. It’s not panic, though; this is an underlying and consuming fear that has been haunting him for so long and is now surfacing. He contextualizes this fear in the brilliant “Baby Boy”, begging the hardships of being an African-American person in America not to “take my baby boy,” “my pride and joy.” It’s the best example of Gambino’s “make it all for everybody, always” motto; his message is directed at his son alone, but he wants it to be heard by all.
“The Night Me and Your Mama Met” continues the experimentation with an epic guitar solo that echoes John Frusciante. More importantly though, the track is the best example of what Gambino has learned and executed in “Awaken, My Love!”. This renaissance man has figured out how to make his music speak like his words, crafting a completely instrumental piece that is romantic, fateful, nostalgic, disappointing and more complex than many of his songs with words. The track leads into the finale, “Stand Tall,” in which Gambino finds resolution with his fear in advice he received from his parents: “Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall.”
“Awaken, My Love!” is ambitious, drawing from many inspirations and successfully delivering a powerful message. Though its second half may be stronger than its first half, Glover’s third LP demonstrates that he has graduated from the one-dimensional lyrics and beats of his earlier albums and has mastered the art of capturing tone and speaking through music.
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