Childish Gambino Lays Down the Funk

Childish Gambino’s newest album, Awaken, My Love!

Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!, his newest album that dropped on December 2nd, invites the listener to do just that: awaken.

The opening track, Me and Your Mama, begins with chime-tinkling that seems to invoke a lullabied-state, one that is abruptly interrupted with a maximal, layered soundscape, indicative of what the rest of the album has to offer. But the “awakening” transcends just the tracks, and we are startled into a record where Gambino seems to be tackling a new form for himself, abandoning hip hop for a full-on nosedive into the world of funk, while at the same time seeming to be working through some personal issues. Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) pointed out in an interview with Australian podcast, triple j, that making the album was not fun for him and that he was going through a lot of stuff at the time. Essentially, we may be awakening to a whole new Childish Gambino.

If you had an expectation of the album, it’s best to leave that behind. Beyond the adoption of a new musical genre, there is also no preparation for some wild lyrics like, “Please don’t find me rude, but I don’t eat fast food,” and recurring sonic elements throughout the tracks, such as the deep, terrifying evil laughter that feels Bowser-esque every time it crops up. And certainly there’s no being able to expect the bizarre track, “California”, a Calypso-inspired theme complete with samples of pan flute and an affected Jamaican accent on Gambino’s part, a song that completely interrupts the record’s overall flow.

Funkadelic’s 1971 album, Maggot Brain

For all those surprising pieces, however, there is a lot that feels familiar with the album; one can find many influences woven into the sonic tapestry that Gambino has created. His vocal styling is sometimes reminiscent of Andre 3000 (Have Some Love reminded me of Dracula’s Wedding in particular, actually, and one wonders if this is Childish Gambino’s own sonic departure, à la The Love Below sans Speakerboxxx counterpart), and then in other places he tests the boundaries of his vocal range with emotional wailing suggestive of James Brown or Otis Redding in the midst of their most passionate moments. But even if you disagree with all of those assessments, there’s no denying the very strong influences of Parliament throughout, and although not a recreation, there are even some similarities and parallels to be drawn to the album’s cover art and that of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain.

It’s not just the technicality and musicality that makes this new album so interesting, however. It’s the fact that Gambino is willing to tread in waters he hasn’t been before. It would be easy for him to rest on his laurels (there are many to rest on), but he’s constantly innovating and bringing his fans on the journey with him (Literally, even. He released a virtual-reality-compatible video of his debut live performance of the opening track at Joshua Tree through his Pharos App). The album is a personal journey, but it “awakens” itself to much more than that. As he said on triple j, “I also think in America we’re going through a lot right now with everything that’s going on, so I was just trying to play what I felt, but I was doing it with friends, so at the end of the day, that’s what matters.” We live in a time where we need our creators to invest in artistic exploration, to help us dig ourselves out of this mess.

If it were me, I would have ended the album with The Night Me and Your Mama Met, a heartbreakingly moving instrumental track that lasts for about 3 ½ minutes, punctuated by an electric guitar that feels so much like it’s weeping that it nearly brought me to tears. I think it would have been a great contextual tie-in to the first song, rather than Stand Tall, as it stands now. But then again, I’m not the one who’s a musician, artist, writer, producer, actor, (and so on). Donald Glover, with his newest foray into funk, once again proves that there is nothing that he can’t succeed in.

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