On “Baby Boy,” the thematic climax of Childish Gambino’s 2016 album “Awaken, My Love!,” Donald Glover speaks directly to his then-newborn son. He gives his child the same advice his father once gave him: “Walk tall, little one, walk tall.” After nine tracks of hazy fear, finally contextualized by the anxiety of bringing his son into a world of violence and hate, Glover arrives at this sentiment of pride and self-love as an answer.
But despite having found in his father’s guidance the mantra by which Glover needed to teach his son to live, fear remained. In 2018, Glover released his angry and abrasive hit “This Is America,” which, along with its startling video, addressed the country’s struggles with racism and violence head-on and without solution. Looking back, it feels like he was convincing himself, just as much as his son, to stay strong and proud.
“3.15.2020,” the fourth album by Childish Gambino, addresses the same fears that “Awaken, My Love!” did, but the approach couldn’t be more different. “Awaken, My Love!” dealt with raw emotions, creating atmospheres of anxiety. On “3.15.2020,” Glover rips the masks off of his demons and calls them out: racism, violence, conformity, climate change, death and grief. And by God, it’s messy — both thematically and musically. But throughout all the chaos, Donald Glover preaches self-love, and this time, for the first time in his career, he emerges triumphant.
The album opens with “0.00,” an ambient intro distorted by Auto-Tuned cries of “We are!” Besides introducing the album’s electronic direction, the track serves little purpose and is overlong. “Algorhythm” follows, a recent live favorite from Gambino’s “This Is America” tour. An abrasive, “Yeezus”-inspired beat ushers in Glover’s ominously robotic verses as the rapper spits pleas for people to break the mold and be themselves. A dance chorus urges listeners to “move your body,” followed by the second verse’s blood-curdling shouts to “keep on moving, you might survive.” It’s a downright unsettling metaphor — society as a supercomputer, each person a cog in the machine.
A distorted descent into chaos leads into “Time,” a beautiful track that sees Glover continuing to feel like a small and insignificant part of some massive, predictable machine, this time in the context of time itself. Ariana Grande contributes a moving chorus, while the gospel stylings of Brent Jones and The Best Life Singers, who are featured throughout “Awaken, My Love!,” add to the spiritual feeling of being mystified and overwhelmed by time’s fleeting nature.
On the funk slow jam “12.38,” Glover turns to psychedelics either to find meaning in these struggles or to use as a distraction. Beyond its comfortable vibe and a welcome verse from 21 Savage, it doesn’t offer much and spends too much time experimenting with directionless electronic effects. “19.10,” however, salvages the album’s first act. Over a steady dance groove, Glover sings, “To be beautiful is to be hunted.” The line perpetuates the idea that daring to be different will create enemies, but it is worth the beauty.
The album’s second act goes off the rails a bit. “24.19” is another slow jam featuring altered vocals that recall Frank Ocean and profess Glover’s gratitude for his love — presumably his partner and the mother of his children, Michelle White. It’s heartfelt, but at a whopping eight minutes with little direction, the track derails the album’s thematic focus. “32.22” strays even further as a cacophonous tribal chant that should have remained an experiment in the studio. At least “35.31” follows as Glover’s most fun song yet, with its cheerful guitar riff and joyous applause complementing Gambino’s bouncing verses. Still, the song about making and dealing drugs feels completely out of place on an album that is quickly veering out of control.
Thankfully, Glover gets back on track with the interlude “39.28.” Here, he reveals the death of his father, stunningly lamenting, “Grief is a standing ocean, I never swam unless you did / So I don’t know why I’m here without you / I miss you.” “42.26” turns out to be “Feels Like Summer,” a track Glover released over the summer of 2018. A melancholic beat supports verses that grapple with climate change, technology and the struggle to slow down and be present.
Broadening the scope of Glover’s anxieties does well to introduce “3.15.2020”’s thematic climax, “47.48.” Having lived through the response to “This Is America,” the death of his father and the first years of his son’s life, Glover has finally learned and practiced the power of self-love. He imparts his wisdom to his son as he did years ago, but he no longer needs to convince himself. The effect leaves us feeling reassured, rather than uneasy, as on “Awaken, My Love!” Glover sings, “Little boy, little girl / Are you scared of the world? / Is it hard to live? / Just take care of your soul / Let the beauty unfold / You’ll get through it.” The track, which thematically and sonically recalls “Baby Boy,” ends with a touching conversation between Glover and his son Legend. The boy asks “Do you love yourself?” — to which his father responds confidently, “I do love myself.”
The album closes triumphantly with “53.49,” a high-energy banger that channels Anderson .Paak. Glover proudly belts to his son, “Do what you wanna do,” and he proclaims that he “never said it even though I probably should / I said I love me.”
“3.15.2020” holds nothing back, takes a lot of risks and is unafraid to jam and experiment. A lot of mistakes come out of this: songs that are too long, mixes that fail to highlight strong vocals and more than a few thematic diversions. These can be forgiven, though, as Glover always manages to return to unique soundscapes and themes of daring to be different. The fourth album by Childish Gambino is ultimately a triumphant arrival, a culmination of Glover’s quest for self-love.
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