Whatever you think of his skills as a rapper (and the debate is certainly fierce), Donald Glover is a fantastic performer. Whether that means delivering lines as Childish Gambino or Troy Barnes, he’s a compelling presence. Proponents and detractors of Because the Internet and Season 4 alike should all agree that Glover’s emotional performances prove fascinating, even if you aren’t into the content he’s using that power to convey.
If that weren’t clear at the time of his last record, perception of Glover’s thoughtful, passionate core certainly changed by the time this first season of Atlanta closed on FX. “The thesis with the show was kind of to show people how it felt to be black,” Glover told the Television Critics Association. In addition to a prevalent fear and fragility — the idea that life could change, or even end, at any second — Glover’s show captures a sort of recurring echo, the feeling that history, tradition, and the performance of those traditions are essential. As if inspired by that exploration, Glover mines decades of soul, funk, and R&B for his new album as Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”.
The result feels as if the lines between Donald Glover and Childish Gambino are blurring and for the better. The Gambino “character” was never half as interesting as Atlanta and therefore never as powerful as Glover himself. He started as a comedy writer and stand-up, and yet the punchlines weren’t enough to push him into the top tier of rap, which he seemed to be driving toward — no matter how conceptual or serious he pushed in the product, Gambino never seemed to fulfill the grand vision of its creator.
In the lead-up to the show and the album, Glover explained to Billboard that he used a single facility to produce both, swapping out the writers for musicians as day turned to night. “I never really saw them as different things,” Glover explained of the album and TV show. And that perspective shows — “Awaken, My Love!” carries the same visceral strength of Atlanta, the same anxiety, fear, passion, love, and beauty in massive doses.
Some of the same issues that dogged Childish Gambino’s previous attempts at this sort of powerful expression linger here, but Glover’s anguished wail strikes a far more resonant chord than his impish punchlines. The futurist pop and backpack rap tracks of his past had some occasional weight, but it’s less cringe-worthy to hear this blended Afrofuturism — drawing influence from Outkast to George Clinton, Flying Lotus to Prince — occasionally come on as a weak-tea version of its inspirations than it is to hear him swing for some revolutionary new rap sound and miss, as on Because the Internet.
The first appearance of Glover himself on the album, his voice and speaker-cracking howl on “Me and Your Mama”, make it clear that this will be a different album. The astral choir, ultra-fuzzed guitars, and bottom-heavy rhythm section add an even more powerful weight to Glover’s singing, the vague “them” vs. “us” lyrics applicable to any number of challenged love stories across time — precisely the timeless resonance that Glover exploits throughout the record to great benefit.
Though that’s not to say that trope-y lyrics can always be supported by this sort of P-funk bliss. “Zombies” is a particularly egregious bit of goofiness, far more “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” than “Thriller”. Sure, yes, this is definitely an allegory, but hearing the lines “All I see is zombies/ Walking all around us/ You can hear them coming/ (They come to take your life)/ You can hear them breathing/ Breathing down your spine,” just elicits a laugh, when other elements of the album so powerfully convey the element of fear that drove Atlanta. On “Riot”, his simple lines about hopelessness (“World, we’re out of captains/ Everyone just wants a better life/ They tried to kill us”) convey something much more powerful than “Zombies” or “Boogieman”.
But “Riot” also shows the inverse of that fear that so powerfully inspires today’s version of Childish Gambino. “Love to say they feel us, but they won’t take my pride,” he insists over the spiraling-galaxy funk. “Fly, fly, fly high, everyone!” Elsewhere, the importance of keeping family together infuses “Me and Your Mama”, “Baby Boy”, and especially closing track “Stand Tall”. In the latter, Glover recounts lines spoken by his mother and father (either in actuality or in character), using them as inspiration for the listener. “Keep on your dreams, keep standing tall/ If you are strong you cannot fall,” the song repeats. This powerful voice that travels down through generations, through decades, through genres, through mentors and family, makes “Awaken, My Love!” resonate far greater than any inventive new wordplay. If Glover can fuse this drive for genuine emotion and the power of reality with that wit and inventive mind for words, an even greater accomplishment may lie ahead.
Essential Tracks: “Me and Your Mama”, “Stand Tall”, and “Redbone”