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First Thoughts: Childish Gambino, 'Awaken, My Love!'

Rob Hansen

 // Dec 2, 2016

Nearly three years after the release of Because the Internet, the man known as Donald Glover is back with a very unique project that is sure to leave some listeners with a surefire incentive to keep it on repeat. Under his Childish Gambino pseudonym, the emcee holds off on the sixteens this go-round, instead choosing to make use of the vocal abilities that put his inner Jim Morrison on display. But upon journeying this album, it would be unwise to think that Morrison and the Doors are the only ghosts you’d feel the presence of. In fact, "Awaken, My Love!" may be the most unorthodox release of the year.

Kicking off with “Me and Your Mama,” the album begins with a melody eerie enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand, but it softly morphs into a moment that feels like absolute serenity. As the words “I’m in love when,” ring out, the song becomes quite angelic. And just when you forgot the opening jingle, it weaves itself back into the fabrics of your conscious, though it no longer harbors the original sense of darkness. That’s not enough for Gambino. Just after the 2-minute mark, the track abruptly transitions in an electrifying fashion and into a choir-backed psych rock composite.

Childish Gambino - Me and Your Mama (Official Audio)
ChildishGambinoVEVO

While the album’s opener is a guaranteed enjoyable listen, it’s barely scratching the surface of just how sonically different a ride one is in for. By all means is that not a bad thing.

A new groove swoops in once “Have Some Love” begins. A far cry from “Mama,” carrying a heavy funk flow that echoes George Clinton and Funkadelic. Between the riffs of some acoustic guitar action and the harrowing-yet-harmonic sound of the multiple voices that combine to deliver the hook, “Have a word for your brother/Have some time for one another/ Really love one another/ It’s so hard to find,” the song feels rooted in the current state of American society. Now that we are beginning to enter a post-Obama era, the reality of the gaps in race, economic class, and gender are more evident than ever and it’s important that “brothers” stand together in the uphill battle that never seems to find a balance.

The political undertones are much more evident on the third track, “Boogieman,” tackling the police shooting epidemic that has left our nation in ruins on multiple occasions. As Gambino’s audio rollercoaster progresses, the various concepts that fill each song has their own life to it. Gears shift many times throughout and a question raised during the cuts “Zombies” and “California” is, how does one maneuver in a society where the purity of souls have been compromised by the insufferable value of a dollar? The former song details Gambino seeing zombies, merely serving as a metaphor for those that are after him solely for his mind and his wealth, with backing lyrics that admit “we’re eating you for profit.”

Much like Bruno Mars’ recent LP, 24K Magic, Gambino’s album exists inside a multitude of genres. Unlike the eighties and nineties eras that Mars surfed through for his project, Gambino opts for the vibrations of the 60s and 70s. After bouncing around in psych rock and funk, “Riot” distinctly sounds like a blaxploitation jam that you might catch Fred Williamson walking to on Malcolm X Boulevard. Meanwhile, “Stand Tall” sprinkles a selection of samples that are easy to miss: a thumping bassline, borrowed from René & Angela’s “Imaginary Playmates” (famously sampled by Jay Z) appears with recurring splashes of “Strawberry Letter 23” layered throughout. When all the elements are added together, it’s obvious there’s a magnetic kinship holding Awaken together and the energy built throughout the eleven tracks help keep the navigation of the album intact and is beautiful in execution.

As great as the album is, “Redbone” is the best song to come from the selection. Channeling Bootsy Collins’ 1976 record “I’d Rather Be With You,” the song works best as an exhibition of romance. The essence of the track can depict one of two moments, those being the flaming orange skies of a sunset or a faded purple, moonlit, midnight. What makes it haunting, is how the vastly different scenes somehow work simultaneously to create a palette of colors you’ve only imagined could be used for auditory purposes. Gambino’s vocals may be high in pitch but lyrics like “it made me put away my pride,” are soft in spirit and effective as an intimate whisper in one’s ear.

Childish Gambino - Redbone (Official Audio)
ChildishGambinoVEVO

The raps are on hold for Gambino’s third album and while that would sound like a problem for fans of the emcee who boldly claimed that he “is just a rapper,” it won’t and shouldn’t be. “Awaken, My Love!” is as experimental as Kanye West’s divisive 808s & Heartbreak, playing on pent up emotions that beat breaks and rhymes can’t solve. It happens. In this sound that Gambino has engineered, he’s expressing his disgust with society, the vague figures stalking him that were once human, and his woes as a lover and a father. Elements of "Awaken"’s music were presented visually in his hit FX sitcom Atlanta, so it’s easy to see the correlation between the two projects regardless of their respective mediums. All you have to do is give it a listen.

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