A rapper, singer, writer, director, producer, comedian, actor and recent winner of two Golden Globes, Donald Glover is the modern artist. You may know him from the old sketch troupe “Derrick Comedy,” or maybe you’ve seen him in “Community” or “The Martian.” You’re likely to have laughed at a joke he’s written for “30 Rock,” maybe you’ve even seen his stand-up special “Weirdo.” Perhaps, more recently, you’ve delved into his FX show “Atlanta” or have been turned onto his music, the latter of which has an interestingly diverse history.
Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, a name garnered from the Wu-Tang Name Generator site, has seven mixtapes, two EPs and now three albums under his belt. His musical career can be best described as rather divisive. His earlier mixtapes were received well enough, but his debut album “Camp” came with a stinging score of 1.6/10 from Pitchfork. His next album, “Because the Internet,” met a larger audience with better scores all around, but he was still just outside the hip hop in-group. Like any good artist, however, Glover decided it was time to take the plunge and do something no one expected, time to push the envelope in a different direction.
I try to keep anecdotal elements out of my reviews. While reviews are in and of themselves anecdotal at core, I mean that I leave things like “This song reminds me of my dad” out of my thoughts on an album. That being said, when I heard Glover’s first single off of “‘Awaken, My Love!’,” the song “Me and Your Mama,” my jaw quite literally dropped. It started off kind enough. There were some jingly effects, a nice ambient atmosphere. Soon, a calm beat kicked in with some female choir voices singing “I’m in love when we are smoking that la-la-la-la-la” which is both haunting and enticing. With close to no warning at around the two-minute mark, however, the song takes a drastic turn. Some fuzzy guitar replaces the jingling, the women are gone, and the beat kicks up. Glover’s voice comes rushing center-stage, and it’s unlike how we’ve ever heard the man. His voice hits all the highs and lows, strained to its emotional extent and cracked with pain and love. Childish Gambino just dropped a soul song.
“‘Awaken, My Love!’,” Childish Gambino’s third studio album, took an unprecedented move forward. Glover, distancing himself from his older works, turns himself into probably the only style of music that can sustain his emotional anguish throughout this album — and drops a modern soul album. Rest assured, that first single was no outlier. The album’s second single, “Redbone” takes the funk in a lighter direction. It’s smoother, dancier. The beat is slow and steady, the synthesizer is light and restrained. The occasional strumming of a bass, though, keeps it just funky enough. Glover’s voice is high to reflect the song’s female perspective. This effect, something I thought to be artificially obtained with pitch control, was proven organic by the song’s live performance on “The Tonight Show.” I can’t imagine how much vocal coaching Glover went through for this album.
Moving away from the singles, however, the album has its fair share of bangers and the occasional track that falls short of expectations. “Have Some Love” solidifies the album’s identity as a soul piece with its looping drum break and gratuitous use of choir singers. “Boogieman” and “Zombies” take both Glover’s voice and the musical direction to exceedingly dark, if not funky depths. We’re not talking Swans or Xiu Xiu dark, but these songs paint Glover at his eeriest places. The album isn’t without its less enticing tracks. “Riot,” a two-minute track with admittedly impressive vocal performances, is little more than a boring instrumental loop paired with said vocals. “California,” as well, seems to be the most divisive track on the album. Glover’s altered voice and the carefree instrumentation turn the song into a sort of reggae-soul hybrid. It stands as the cheeriest track on the album, an emotion that is woefully out of place on the otherwise grave record. That being said, it’s the track where Glover comes closest to rapping, so fans of older Gambino, otherwise turned off by this record, may find enjoyment in this song.
On the final three tracks, “Baby Boy,” is another song sung from a female perspective with the bone-chilling chorus “Please don’t take my baby boy.” In one of the most emotionally profound moments on the album, Glover reads to his newborn son: “There was a time before you, and there will be a time after you. Though these bodies are not our own, walk tall, little one. Walk tall.” The feelings involved with these lines can not be accurately depicted through text alone the song itself forms the perfect environment for such a statement to grow and infect its listener with the most hopeful of emotions.
The next two tracks end the album in a wonderful fashion. “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” is a simple if not likable instrumental track with some wonderfully done guitar. It’s a song that doesn’t stand up well on its own; good thing it’s followed by the album’s closer, “Stand Tall,” a song in which Glover recites the advice given to him by his father: “Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall. If you are strong, you cannot fall. There is a voice inside of us all, so smile, when you can.” This final song has received a fair amount of flak for meandering its way through multiple forms with little-to-no connection between them. These sudden musical shifts, while jarring, don’t detract from the listening experience in too severe of a way. It could perhaps stand as a parallel to Glover’s constant uncertainty in life (an idea that is also represented in “Terrified”). The song’s ending, an unconventional cut-off in the middle of a note, with a few seconds of silence to display its deliberance, further presses this idea. Glover, while successful and a recent father, may still retain no semblance of where to go from here.
I’ll tell you where: nowhere but up. To paraphrase video-essayist Kristian Williams, Donald Glover represents an under-represented characteristic in artists: dissatisfaction. From a glance, it would seem as though Glover’s entire career has been an attempt to outdo himself with constant ventures into new media. He’s a man I doubt this world will tire of hearing. He’s a man that serves as a glowing inspiration to aspiring artists the world over, myself included. Donald Glover is a paragon. “‘Awaken, My Love!’” furthers his persistence in unending creation, a theme I hope he will continue to follow.