Album review: Awaken, My Love! by Childish Gambino

Album review: Awaken, My Love! by Childish Gambino

R&B and rap are pushed aside to make way for soul and funk in Childish Gambino's third studio album.

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Charlie Brown

In November, Donald Glover - known in the music world as Childish Gambino - unexpectedly released the lead single from his upcoming album Awaken, My Love! - 'Me and Your Mama'.

"Let me into your heart!" screams Glover, whilst backing vocals are emphasising, guitar riffs cranking and the pounding drums - a cherry on top. 

Fans of his previous work could be excused for asking 'is this the same Gambino that made 'Bonfire'.

Ever changing style

Glover's music has always been evolving; his first release, Camp (2011) opens up with him rapping towards his audience over soulful tones, á la Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010).

Each song on Camp is sonically different from the last, but with an overall braggadocious feel within the lines. The album really reaches its peak with the hard-hitting Heartbeat and its dirty-but-contagious instrumental. 

Because the Internet (2013), Glover's sophomore album, featured fewer bars, focusing more on the beautiful production. Songs flow into one another, even having its own screenplay; there is the sense that Gambino wanted to create more of an art form. The music video for hit single 3005 also gives rise to this idea.

Moments that really encapture the brilliance of Ludwig Goransson's involvement - the man who has collaborated with Glover on all three of his studio albums - include the fierce opening track I. Crawl, and instrumentals in Dial Up that effortlessly stroll into sweet melodies on I. The Worst Guys. Sometimes Gambino's vocals are just a passenger to the overpowering backing tracks - sounds that ironically come to the forefront on song such as II. Shadows and III. Urn.

This project really hits inspirational heights closer to the end in II. Earth: The Oldest Computer. Gambino really challenges us to question ourselves and ask 'what if today was our last day on earth?' as "maybe it's the last night" repeats throughout. 

When comparing his previous lead singles (Heartbeat and 3005) to that of Awaken, My Love! - Redbone and Me and Your Mama - the difference is astronomical; and I'm not talking about the spaced opening on the latter.

Gambino looks to progress from Because the Internet with this December-release. Photo: Getty / Jason LaVeris
Gambino looks to progress from Because the Internet with this December-release. Photo: Getty / Jason LaVeris

What to expect from Awaken, My Love!?

The contrast in style even between Gambino's two pre-release singles is clear to hear.

Elements of old-school soul live throughout both. Drawing inspiration from his love of 70s funk artists such as Funkadelic and The Isley Brothers, Glover delivers two completely different vocal performances - and nails them. 

Mystery surrounded the remaining eight tracks ahead of release, as we weren't given a clear direction of where the album would be heading from Me and Your Mama and Redbone.

Similar to a movie trailer, less information pre-release often proves to be more thought-provoking and exciting. To not reveal your 'hand of cards' to the audience is often a clever move.

On a similar note, perhaps if the makers of 2016's oft-critiqued Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hadn't practically shown the film's entire plot in the trailers, the backlash wouldn't have been so strong? 

Guess we'll never know. 

To get back to the point, Glover and his team did a magnificent job on marketing this album. Without knowing exactly what to expect, there isn't an aftermath of disappointment. For example the album cover and title are equally vague; Awaken, My Love! makes you wonder what lies beneath. It also begs many questions: "Who is his love?", "Why is he asking them to be awake?" and so on. 

Putting the focus on the listener to discover an art form for themselves is something every artist should aspire to accomplish. 

Artists that deserve recognition for doing so, include Taylor Swift with her grammy winning 1989 (2014), Beyonce with her out-of-nowhere platinum-selling record Lemonade (2016), and also the highly anticipated Blonde (2016) from Frank Ocean.

Frank Ocean succeeded in a switch-up of style, will Childish Gambino do the same? photo: Getty / NurPhoto
Frank Ocean succeeded in a switch-up of style, will Childish Gambino do the same? photo: Getty / NurPhoto

An explosive opening

Track 1: Me and Your Mama

Almost as if we're being lulled to sleep, the opening track starts out rather slowly, building suspense with one line repeated alongside soothing and swinging high-pitched melodies. Each time "I'm in love when we're smoking at night" is softly spoken, the beat intensifies.

Ultimately, this leads to what can only be described as an intoxicating and funky groove-infused guitar riff. 

You can't help but be taken away by the pure sound of soul; not only coming from Glover's raspy tones. Layers of musical brilliance accompany each other so perfectly that the elegant gospel choir not only feels right, but it enhances the magnitude of funk. 

Two minutes of Gambino's hellish screams pass by and we're left to ponder on what just happened, with a soft and lyric-less instrumental end.

Somehow Me and Your Mama is able to sound modern whilst still capturing the sound that dominated the '70s. 

Also, the song serves as our introduction to Awaken's untold story; we're introduced to 'my love!' with pleads of "girl you've really got a hold on me" and "let me into your heart". 

It's easily comparable to the opening track Wesley's Theory on Kendrick Lamar's outstanding conceptual album, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015). 

Ushering us into the funk that surrounds these projects is something both Glover and Lamar are able to do, in a similar fashion. Setting the precedent from the off is important; in their cases, hardcore fans are used to a different genre of music from them.

Did Gambino draw inspiration from Lamar's last two releases? Photo: Getty / Christopher Polk
Did Gambino draw inspiration from Lamar's last two releases? Photo: Getty / Christopher Polk

Track 2: Have Some Love

If you felt offended by the funky Me and Your Mama, then you've reached your tipping point. Have Some Love really doesn't let off the metaphorical pedal of soul; the drum and bass combination makes it hard to believe the song was born in 2016.

Gambino's lyrics can often come across as simple; however, in this case, it's for a reason. Getting the message across of "really love one another" becomes vastly more relative once the next two tracks arrive.

An upbeat feel can also turn regular lyrics into meaningful ones; The Beatles obviously being one of the greatest ambassadors of this. When you hear "Come Together" or "All You Need Is Love", you don't critique their words. Instead, a warming and joyous mood is created through the band's musical talent. 

Not to say Have Some Love is going to take over the world as these classics did, but it still has some purchase within an album of greater subject matter.

Glover sharing the love with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. Photo: Getty / NBC
Glover sharing the love with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. Photo: Getty / NBC

Track 3: Boogieman

Talking of subject matter, Boogieman is full of it.

The overhauling groovy sound of Gambino's boogie-inspiring third track shouldn't take you away from what the song is actually about. 

On first, or even third listen, the dark message that is portrayed is hard to come by. "With the gun in your hand, I'm the boogieman" doesn't sound so black and white when sung by Glover over colourful instrumentals. 

Looking deeper into some of the lines on here provides a vivid depiction of police brutality in America. Boogieman is a play on the old term "Bogeyman" - which is used to describe someone who is scary and frightening. Instead, the "boogie" implies the subject is a peaceful spirit, not an evil one.

Conversely, this is also a term for a style of music that originated in the early 20th century; the repetitive-but-catchy guitar rhythm used in this particular song is an example of this. 

"I'm gonna come get you" is really Gambino poking fun at the use of force in America. Police officers often have the gun in their hand, still fearing the worst for their lives when facing African-Americans without one.

Reading between the lines in the following verses forms quite an interesting concept from the Cali rapper. "If you point a gun at my rising sun" suggests that the black community is on the rise, from the times of boogie music. "Though we're not the one, but in the bounds of your mind, we have done the crime" is a saddening but true image of the state America finds herself in.

Gambino goes even deeper into the psyche of officers and the state of his people in a light-hearted manner asking "But if he's scared of me, how can we be free?"

Atlanta duo Run the Jewels also make light of the never-ending battle African-American's face from the fist of the law. Here's their brilliant music video for Close Your Eyes off of their most recent album Run the Jewels 2

If you listen to Boogieman casually, however, its pleasant fast-paced chords, playful tone of backing vocals and Glover's casual nature will allow you to enjoy the production. 

Ludwig Goransson, the man behind Glover's ever-changing style. Photo: Getty / Vivien Killiea
Ludwig Goransson, the man behind Glover's ever-changing style. Photo: Getty / Vivien Killilea

Track 4: Zombies

Zombies can take time to get used to; Gambino's tone is strange and eerie. He touches on the people who chose to live life in others' shadows, "breathing down your spine" in an attempt to steal your 'soul' and 'money'. 

Just as Have Some Love tells us to "love one another", Zombies does the opposite; warning the audience of the troubles that come with being individually talented. 

"Do you feel alive?" powerfully questions those who leech off another's success and now the importance of track two becomes clear - it's a prelude to the world that Gambino finds himself in. 

Track 5: Riot

A short but noteworthy tune, Riot samples Funkadelic's Good To Your Earhole. It starts out beaming of funk; Glover's vocal performance once again seeps in-between gaps of funky guitar rhythms - and the gospel choir that never misses a beat.

Where Zombies describes the people that are to blame, Riot details the reaction.

"World, we're without captains" may even be a direct reaction to the recent presidential election."This world don't feel alright... they tried to kill us" shows Glover's intentions again of speaking from the viewpoint of African-Americans. 

Being without the supposed 'captain' Barack Obama, we're made to feel like the gates of hatred and fear are closing on us - "this pressure brewing". 

Take a step back out from the lyrics again and it's a real feel-good song; something that is particularly frequent on Awaken, My Love!

Track 6: Redbone

Arguably the one radio-hit worthy song from the album, Redbone offers up more of Gambino's brilliant production. Immediately, the listener is thrown into a psychedelic wave of sound, as the synthesizer strings deliver a nostalgic feel of the '70s. 

"Daylight" sings Glover, and daylight can be found between the pitch in his voice in comparison to a track like Zombies. 

On the surface this song shows signs of drawing back to the opening track; talking about 'wishing I could make this mine", Gambino finds himself longing for the girl in question again.

There are cracks to be found in this suggested relationship; quickly swapping an urge for them to be together for a cautiousness once they find love. "But stay woke" is repeated reminding this girl that if she's not careful the next guy is "creeping". 

The way this song ends also connotes a sense of fear and doubt - two themes that have been regularly touched on so far. The bass continues on even after the subject is asked "how'd it get so scandalous?" and after a minute or so the once-upbeat melody feels like it's overstayed its welcome. 

Coupled with the sudden piano instrumentation, Glover evokes the worry that good times don't always last, something that you may have waited for "for so long" can turn out to be realistically not to your taste. 

Donald Glover speaking onstage at the 'Atlanta' New York Screening. Photo: Getty / Neilson Barnard
Donald Glover speaking onstage at the 'Atlanta' New York Screening. Photo: Getty / Neilson Barnard

Track 7: California 

Cracks that started to appear in Glover's relationship nearing the end of Redbone are fleshed out in the woodwind-flavoured California. 

Gambino references video sharing app Vine, expressing frustration with his love's mistakes, crying out "how you want to loop this **** but looking like a Vine?".

You really have to look into the lyrics to understand what Glover is saying in his verses; his voice is made near-inaudible - perhaps on purpose?

This mumble style of singing/rapping has been mastered by artists such as Future, who happens to bluntly reference drugs in his music. Glover does it more subtly in California. 

Track 8: Terrified

Gambino takes a more cautious approach in Terrified compared to the opening track, but dig a little deeper and these two songs act as polar opposites mood-wise too. 

"La la la's" live within both; even followed by the same deep-pitched evil laugh; except Glover is sort of viewed as villain to the love he once wished he could have. 

Track 9: Baby Boy

Baby Boy extends on Terrified's hollow nature; a voice so vibrant on Redbone now reveals desperation as Gambino seemingly talks to his recently born son.

A defeated and regretful side to the father of this Baby Boy is relayed; cries of "ohh" and "uhh" accompany many lines throughout. 

Track 10: The Night I Met Your Mama

With no lyrics to dissect in this penultimate instrumental, it acts to serve as the bridge from the already-completed story and Glover's reflective closing track. 

Track 11: Stand Tall

Parts of Stand Tall sound like Ron Burgundy is going mad on the jazz flute. This isn't even a bad thing either - it's a beautiful track. Gambino really saves the best for last.

Glover's voice can be heard more vividly over the piano and synth backing - maybe this is him standing tall?

Drawing comparisons between this final track and that of Frank Ocean's Blonde (2016) becomes easier with each listen. They both act as the conclusion to both artist's story; Glover preaching a positive message whilst Ocean details his previous few years.

Ocean on Futura Free eases in - in a similar style to Glover. Looking back on past events, speaking directly to his 'mama' citing how he used to "work on his feet for seven dollars an hour". 

Stand Tall uses its 6:11 runtime to inspire hope - "if you are strong you cannot fall". 

Both also use voice-distortion to come across as electronic, maybe even futuristic; talking to their previous self from the present day which happens to be a brighter one.

How do you feel about this album? Photo: Getty / Michael Tran
How do you feel about "Awaken, my Love!"? Photo: Getty / Michael Tran
 

Does Childish Gambino nail the change of style?

Of course. Every song builds upon its predecessor, every groovy note - on point from a vocal point of view. As mentioned previously, the production alone is glorious. However, what makes a good album a genius one is not how the production sounds, it's how the sound makes you feel.

Gambino and his team did a brilliant job on the instrumentals; each one collates to a specific mood, using synthesizers to express different ways of talking to you in the language of music. 

On Me and Your Mama, various instruments pop out all over the damn place; showing Glover's passionate and expressive will to be 'let into' another's heart.

Switch to Redbone and at first we're greeted with an upbeat groove, as Gambino is lustful. Towards the closing stages this transcends into darkness, guitar riffs slowed to connote a realisation of disappointment. 

Those same connotations used on the lengthy Baby Boy gradually pick up, almost as if it's a role reversal from the use of Redbone's instrumentation.

Glover ends on a high note, well actually it's interrupted - making the listener long for more of this new sound.

Overall, Glover's dive into the world of funk and soul is one that should be taken seriously by the music world.

He's now made this sound his own with Awaken, My Love!.

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