Donald Glover, who grabbed the rap name Childish Gambino from a Wu-Tang name generator, is a man constantly in crisis.
His has been a constant struggle to decide who — or what exactly — Childish Gambino is. A graduate of the NYU Tisch dramatic writing program, his career is rooted not in music, but in TV and comedy, and that’s reflected in the lion’s share of his best work. His penchant for TV especially has far surpassed his other ventures (stand-up, dramatic roles) and certainly his music, at least in quality.
But more than any of his other work, his music has been intensely personal. Culdesac, the first mixtape he forwardly acknowledges in his music career, rightfully inspired monikers of “emo-rap,” less in a complimentary breakthrough way, like Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak, and more in a damn-this-is-cringeworthy way, like Kid Cudi’s Speedin Bullet 2 Heaven.
What made his earliest work so unsuccessful was that it too couldn’t make up its mind. At one moment Gambino would criticize the state of rap lyricism, while in the next he would lay out such gems as “Now these fakes say hey like horse shit,” and “My verse is pedophiles on the playground.” To brush off these major missteps, he tried to make himself a special category that apparently deserved special criteria: he was funny, but he could be real. What is real, you ask? It’s not really clear, and it’s not really clear that Gambino knew either. Telling your mind can be groundbreaking for some; it wasn’t in this case.
To be real for Gambino was to boast in a cartoonish voice as loudly as possible, and then bemoan that everyone didn’t agree. And even those ostensibly real moments felt like contrived punchlines (“my life’s gone pecans”), which could be fine if you’re into that kind of thing — and can overlook bad rapping and even worse writing — but the production was so overweight for the generally light and, yes, Childish material that the entire thing was grating. The same applies for his first major album Camp, which, frankly, deserves less than this light brush of a mention, except to bring up those early high school kids who never really liked rap became fascinated with the idea of a ‘rapper’ who militantly advertised himself going to Sufjan concerts (while absurdly stating that no other rapper listens to indie) but, you know, still makes easy dick jokes you can rap in the car.
So how in the hell did we get to “Awaken, My Love!,” a funk-heavy record that is filled with song and vocal inflection, rewardingly free of rap entirely and, most astoundingly, actually, well, good?
Two songs — “I. Telegraph Ave.” and “III. Urn.” — from Gambino’s mixed second album Because the Internet offered a glimpse of this direction. Both find Gambino experimenting with his smooth singing voice and trying to spread its applicable length. Where it once was pushed into corners and felt forgotten on hooks, it takes the stage here and produces what had, until now, been by and far some of his best work.
His last release found Gambino coming to this divide head-first, separating his rapping and his singing onto to separate, but connected mixtapes. The former, STN MTN, was delegated to Atlanta rap covers, while the latter, Kauai, was a breezy and original take, improving and showcasing the natural voice talent he seemingly ignored for so long.
In retrospect, that double mixtape now feels like a statement of intent. The rapping takes the sideline, while the true work and production value is placed on furthering his vocal delivery, carving out his own space in the R&B realm.
But even with those hints, “Awaken, My Love!” is a radical departure. It requires a major realignment of what Gambino sounds like, what Gambino sings about and the place Gambino comes from. This is especially true vocally — many of the songs use vocal distortion or never-before-heard inflections, and it becomes easy to forget this is the same man who once made cheesy raps. Opening track “Me and Your Mama” is a powerful example of this, starting with a lower key, spatial introduction and eventually exploding into a choir-assisted sermon. Gambino’s voice can crack at the edges, but it holds strong and grips onto the riveting instrumental, and it’s a powerful declaration that this album is going to be different than anything you’ve come to expect from him.
The place of influence for this work is also a remarkable shift. Where previous works and the accompanying rapping once sounded like forced emulations of Lil Wayne, Kanye, Drake and others, this sound is undeniably rooted in George Clinton’s vocal delivery, the sound of the Funkadelics and D’Angelo’s croon.
As on his rap work, Childish can have a tendency to become too rooted in those influences, verging on derivative. “Zombies,” one of the album’s weakest moments, does precisely this. He tries to keep so close to Clinton’s unique sound that he’s forced to rely on auto-tune in a way that doesn’t feel so much an addition, but a crutch.
But there are times when hyper-altered vocals feel fresh and inventive. “California,” which acts as a marriage of Kauai and Gambino’s new sound, shimmers and shakes with a squeezed inflection by Gambino. It’s too funky for Margaritaville, but too breezy and tropical for purely revivalist ’70s funk. It dances on its own island. And the single “Redbone,” which finds his voice at an unrecognizable, artificial pitch register (reminiscent of Frank Ocean’s “Nikes”), is an inescapable earworm and serves as a grounding center for the album.
Lyrically, the shift in focus from quick cartoon rap to slower, sparser singing, and the expansion of the role of the instrumental here mean that missteps are simply harder to come by. The words are more abstract and less open to a single interpretation, though when they are, the story is clear and gripping. “Baby Boy,” which deals with Gambino’s newfound fear as a father, is simple, yet powerful: “Don’t take my baby boy / Don’t take my pride and joy / I hope I stay close, I hope I stay close.”
Even the wordless pieces are more powerful than any instrumental on a Gambino album before. The penultimate track “The Night Me and Your Mama Met,” which features guitar work from Gary Clark Jr., is neither overbearing nor overlong, but simply drifts and grows toward its conclusion as Clark’s guitar whines sweetly. Where the interludes in Because the Internet were often too heavy and left the listener tired, this one is refreshing.
Coming off his extremely well received, polished TV work on “Atlanta” earlier this year, “Awaken, My Love!” arrives as another reassertion of Donald Glover’s purpose as an artist, closing out what is undeniably his best creative year yet. It seems that in criticism, he worked through his crises, appearing out the other side more refined, more intelligent and simply more likable, those teenage-esque periods of poorly articulated angst now behind him. What we have now is a man who truly lives up to the term “multitalented,” and whose next move is anyone’s guess.