Orderly algorithms and self-love in Childish Gambino's surprise release

Wednesday, March 25, 2020 - 4:20pm

NOSELL

RCA

When my friend told me Donald Glover dropped a new album, I immediately sought it out on Spotify and couldn’t find it. The long-awaited Childish Gambino project materialized on a mysterious website, https://donaldgloverpresents.com, on March 15. My friend joked that Glover uploaded the album on accident before taking a nap — a very probable explanation, but Glover’s move felt very deliberate.

It’s not out of character for Glover to drop projects without warning. The very nature of the release (unannounced, on a less than conventional streaming platform that loops over and over again) deeply affects the listening experience. The traditional song markers — a tracklist, titles, timestamps, beginnings and endings — are blurred and mystified. Every song stands on its own, but the presentation meshes them into one cohesive entity. This continuity in presentation organically comes from the sound. Traditional progressions between verses, choruses and bridges aren’t as predictable, with each song progressing or stagnating sporadically. This album very literally chugs, squacks, vibrates, echoes and chirps as the bass lines play out over bright synths, creating a pleasant volatility throughout. 

There are still traditional glimmers of song formality on this project, but the departures take precedence.  Most notable is the appearance of “Feels Like Summer,” an easygoing, upbeat 2018 single. Ironically, this album’s artistic departure harkens back to “This is America,” a 2018 single that didn’t make the cut for this project. An ad-lib-heavy, satirical critique that tethers Black American art to Black American suffering, the track sent ripples across Internet communities that immediately dissected the thematic underpinnings of its video, lyrics and all the connections in between. Similar to “This is America,” Childish Gambino strives to unsettle his listeners with the connection between his music and its presentation. 

One week after its premiere and subsequent disappearance, the album now resides on traditional streaming platforms with the title 3.15.20, named after the date it was released. The name of each song runs in tandem with the album title, each a mere timestamp of when the song begins. This is with the exception of songs  “Algorhythm” and “Time.” My initial thinking for singing out these two tracks started with the fact that “Algorthym” was part of a two-song bonus collection that was randomly distributed alongside purchases for Glover’s “This is America Tour.” Yet this theory didn't hold as I listened to a minimally modified “Feels Like Summer” that appeared as “42.26.” In terms of “Algorthym,” it beeps, boops and glitches like a cyborg and chugs with the weight of its over-production (kind of like Muse’s Simulation Theory, but actually palatable). Nonetheless, the track is dynamic, developed and catchy enough to garner lasting attention from listeners. Blossoming from wispy synths, it grows with layered, chugging 808s reminiscent of a packaging machine. The beat subsides with Glover’s oscillating falsettos and autotuned, robotic vocals. Its chorus, an interpolation of Zhane’s 1993 hit “Hey Mr. D.J.” is self-aware of what’s happening in the background; Glover upends the R&B Duo’s version to make the lyrics come off as more tongue-in-cheek, mocking the derivative or “algorthym-ic” nature of dance music: “Everybody (Everybody), move your body, now do it (Now do it) / Here is something (Ooh), that's gonna make you move and groove.” The track ultimately gives way in the end to a catchy overlapping of falsetto and altered vocals the halt abruptly as the instrumentals malfunction — perhaps indicating a clash between authenticity and artificiality.

“Time” picks up from here and rebuilds the lost beat from the straggling, struggling beeps at the end. “Time” is clunky like its predecessor, but sweeter, more voluminous and diverse. Every drum beat is decipherable and synthesizers are faint but laser focused. The vocals are pumped up and bright, mingling well with the meditative, jangly guitar base. “Time” builds off of manifold genres, borrowing elements from ’80s synth pop, gospel and funk. The Ariana Grande feature is uncharacteristically short but aesthetically sufficient for another layer of sweetness. Despite the leaping variations and textures, the song never feels overwhelming, developing gradually across its relatively slow pace. The track balances its saccharine nature against Glover’s contemplative and critical character given the stark nature of its lyrical commentary. “Maybe all the stars in the night are really dreams / Maybe this whole world ain't exactly what it seems / Maybe the sky will fall down on tomorrow / But one thing's for certain, baby / We're running out of time,” Glover croons in the chorus. As he wrestles with the ulterior meaning of what is abundant and impermanent, Glover conveys the reasoning for this track’s merit of a title; reality and time are orderly and artificially constructed, much like a traditional album.

If you follow the link for Donald Glover Presents, you will find a handwritten letter. Written in poetics, the all-encompassing theme of the letter is self-love. “This closet, that once housed my shame and refusal to love my most ugly, had unintentionally allowed truth to collect, and form and all back onto me,” the letter reads. This theme spans the entirety of 3.15.20. Most notably there is an interview at the end of penultimate track “47.48” between Glover and his young son, Legend. Wafting in from a tranquil track we hear the humming of this young boy. From there Glover asks his son simply “What do you love?” He lists what is expected of a child: his parents and other people he knows. The subsequent self-awareness is astonishing: “And I love myself,” Legend responds. Legend then asks his father if he loves himself and his mother, both warranting an “absolutely” from Glover. The interview seemingly answers the questions from the chorus, countering its sentiments: “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.” Despite the song’s focus on violence in a digital age, Glover asks his son less contentious questions and teaches him the value of loving himself. 

In the beginning of “19.10” Glover sings, “I remember, uh, back when I was six years old, uh / Daddy said, ‘The world’s so cold’ ‘There is something that you should know’ / Uh ‘You’re so gorgeous,’ thank you, daddy / ‘Nothing's really / worth your time’ / ‘But someday soon you just might find’ / ‘The truth about the world’s design,’ oh.” I suspect Glover’s conversation with his son is meant to full circle back to this moment between him and his father. Regardless, the polarity of Glover preaching “to be beautiful is to be hunted” to then teaching his son that there’s beauty in spite of the violence is poignant and profound. Most vividly, 3.15.20 captures the complexity of beauty, in that it’s ultimately tied to violence and insecurity.