Donald Glover’s music as Childish Gambino has always been somewhat of an oddity, when compared to his otherwise spotless career. Glover is generally masterful at everything he does, be it comic acting, stand-up comedy, or with his new show Atlanta, creating a world of multi-faceted characters. There’s always been a depth and likability to his work, which was made it so surprising that his debut rap album, Camp was poorly received, with critics rejecting its overly self-aware brand of “nerd rap”. Because the Internet was better, largely because Glover seemed to take his work more seriously, but it struggled under the weight of the concept-album pretension surrounding it. “Awaken, My Love!” represents something of a welcome pivot then, as Glover has seemingly abandoned hip-hop for his take on 70’s funk and soul. The album may not cast off all of his previous issues, but it’s comfortably his best work yet.
Both of the album’s pre-release singles are great, and standout in a fairly strong record. Me and Your Mama begins with a swampy bassline and queasy synths, accompanied by soul backing vocalists. Glover doesn’t actually sing until over 2 minutes into the song, at which point it switches into a blues epic filled with crunchy guitar. Glover manages the funk “squeal” pretty handily, and the whole track is extremely satisfying. Redbone is a bit more conventionally structured, built around a catchy, funky synth riff. It wears its Prince influence on its sleeve, and it’s the best pop moment on the album.
The rest of the album is generally strong, but less distinctive. Early tracks like Have Some Love and Boogieman are fun, and wonderfully produced, but don’t have quite the same catchiness or scope as Redbone or Me and Your Mama. California stands out on the album, but not necessarily for the right reason. It’s a very catchy, calypso-esque tune, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the whole thing is a pastiche (Glover continues the unfortunate 2016 trend of using fake Patois on the track too, which is uncomfortable). It’s fun, but feels cheap and tacky, and it rides slightly over the line of “so bad it’s good”.
It’s curious that for a professional writer, lyrics have arguably always been Glover’s biggest failing. He has an unfortunate habit of over-detailing and over-saturating his lyrics with punchlines, which he has evidently tried to avoid on “Awaken, My Love!”. The result is definitely an improvement, but perhaps also goes too far in the other direction. Lines like “can’t stand it, backhanded / they wanna see us falling apart” feel somewhat vague and anonymous, which feeds into the idea that as with his previous output, Childish Gambino isn’t a true representation of Donald Glover, and is instead he’s simply performing.
Even though it still can’t quite overcome the curse of anonymity that seems to accompany every Childish Gambino record, “Awaken, My Love!” is a major step up from Glover’s previous work. If nothing else, Glover is a masterful performer, and that skill comes through loud and clear on this album. Its mixture of g-funk and soul shrieking sounds perfectly authentic, and if it weren’t for the deep 808 basslines, it could easily be mistaken as being straight from the 70’s. Not everything quite works in “Awaken, My Love!”, but it’s Glover’s best work yet, and suggests he’s got even better albums to come.