Donald Glover has now firmly cemented his place in pop culture as an actor, writer, comedian, producer, singer, and rapper. 2016 was a huge year for the 33-year-old artist from Atlanta. He released his first television show (Golden Globe Award winning), Atlanta, which he produced, wrote, and starred in. In addition he held his own “exclusive” music festival called “Pharos” in Joshua Tree National Park where he debuted his new album to cellphone-less fans so that his show would go unshared and undocumented on the internet. Finally, Glover released his 3rd studio album under his stage name Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”, in early December to a surprised fan base. His latest album received generally positive reviews but what surprised his fans most was his completely new change in sound from what everyone was used to hearing.
Gambino has been making hip-hop/rap music since his debut mixtape in 2010. His last album Because the Internet, which came out in 2013, was a growth of maturity for the Atlanta rapper. His high quality production and his lyrical talents were respected in the hip-hop industry for the first time in his career. Because the Internet was, for me, one of my favorite albums of all time. The project didn’t solely provide great music to listen to; rather, it was a complete experience of the artist. Along with the album Gambino released a 70-page screenplay and 25 minute short film. I was impressed with the amount of thought that went into the project, but it only made for an incredibly tough act to follow.
“Awaken, My Love!” is not a hip-hop/rap album; in fact, Apple Music labels it as R&B/Soul. I would agree, however, Gambino clearly takes influences from funk as well. Gambino’s yearning for nostalgic sounding tracks are clearly shown with his influences on this LP being: Funkadelic, Prince, Sly and the Family Stone, and several other funk-rock artists of the 1970’s and 80’s. Tracks on “Awaken, My Love!” such as “Have Some Love”, “Zombies”, “Boogieman”, and “Redbone” have this sensational funk sound. The album oozes with feelings of scariness and sexuality, both at the same time. Gambino’s screams are deeply emotional and passionate while the instrumentals can range from dark and creepy to chaotic elation. It’s amazing how Gambino could succeed in the funk genre on his first attempt.
One of the most notable elements of Gambino’s “neo-funk” album are his incredible vocals. Gambino sings nearly the entirety of the album and without any auto-tune or much vocal editing, what you hear is real. Gambino can reach pitches far beyond what many could imagine possible for him and many thought it was a woman singing instead of Gambino himself. He really shows off his vocal abilities on the song “Redbone”, one of the highlights of the album. In contrast, the song “California” shows Gambino’s most annoying vocal display I’ve ever heard from him. His voice goes into this whining tone and into odd melodies that drift from the fun and playful calypso sounding instrumental. But in all honesty, the production and instrumental is so good on this track that it makes you forgive him for the horrendous vocals and fall in love with the staccato pops from the percussion.
The production on the album is phenomenal. Gambino and his long time co-producer Ludwig Göransson use soulful guitars and the Gary Clark Jr. feature on “The Night Me and you Mama Met” was a great addition. The first song on the album “Me and Your Mama” and the last song on the album “Stand Tall” utilized impressive beat switches to make a diverse range of sounds in each respective track.
“Awaken, My Love!” is a beautiful album and definitely one of my favorites of 2016. Musically, this is Gambino’s best album. He produces a wide range of sounds instrumentally and vocally, showing his talents beyond hip-hop and rapping. However thematically “Awaken, My Love!” cannot compare to the amazing storyline of Because the Internet. Nevertheless, Donald Glover’s evolution in 2016 has solidified him as one of the most talented artists of our generation.