Some thoughts on “Awaken, My Love!” by Childish Gambino

My first introduction to Donald Glover was through the comedy TV show “Community.” When I learned he also was a musician, and had albums released under the name “Childish Gambino,” I admit that I didn’t take it seriously.

It’s not that I doubted his talent. It’s just … I liked him as a comedian, I liked him in that role on the TV show, I didn’t really NEED him in any other fashion.

How short-sighted, right? Why can’t people be multifaceted? I’m quite OK with others (like David Bowie, Gerard Way, Prince, etc.) stretching out and being multimedia artists with toes in other arts. I can’t explain why I was so close-minded, but I was.

I was wrong.

And I sincerely apologize.

The cover to Childish Gambino's 2016 album
The cover to Childish Gambino’s 2016 album “Awaken, My Love!”

On Facebook, a friend and fellow music nut was talking about how great the new Childish Gambino album was. He said “Awaken, My Love!” was so great, he thinks it deserves to be album of the year (even over Beyonce’s “Lemonade”). And he shared Questlove’s thoughts on the album, so effusive and glowing and compelling.

With all of that going for it, I had no excuses for not trying it. So today I fired up Spotify and gave it a shot. I still haven’t listened to his first two albums (yet), so hearing “Awaken, My Love!” didn’t have any comparison bias for me.

The chiming sounds that started the album had me wondering what I was in for. It sounded pleasant enough, but it sure wasn’t what I expected.

Then came the vocals, the “clap” sounds and I was taken away. The sonic density built with each repeat of the verse, then bam, fuzzy guitars and his intense, passionate lead vocal. OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.

Talk about power, and funk, and style. And this was just halfway through the first track, “Me and Your Mama.” There’s so much going on with this song, and it is so masterfully done. A melange of styles and styles, and it never gets boring or tedious or distracted.

First track down, game on. I was hooked.

And the album is just sheer, ridiculous, incredible greatness. There’s funk, there’s R&B, gospel, rock, soul, just everything. It’s a knockout.

And this isn’t some pastiche of Parliament Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder, James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone. Certainly, there are elements of the material that you can attribute to all those great acts (check “Riot,” for one), but it’s more of a feeling of growth, appreciation, a shared stylistic and historic feeling. Glover’s artistic investment is genuine; That, or he is the most convincing faker since the November elections.

“Boogieman” has a great bass run pulsing throughout it, and it borrows scratching sounds that bring to mind hip-hop and club sounds, and the song definitely has a danceable groove to it. But it also has disturbing sound effects to it, like maybe your drink was spiked and you’re getting distorted … Whew, it suits the notion of a horror, but a compelling horror.

Glover is talented at marrying ambient sounds with great beats and excellent instrumental washes. I found myself grabbed by “Zombies” because of the audio tapestry of the song. The lyrics actually kind of made me laugh a bit, it seemed like such an elaborate and over-earnest soul song about the monsters. Now, is this social commentary? Sure, why not. But you can make that argument for anything. I won’t get drawn into what he meant, or how it applies to anything. But even if you took it at face value, “Zombies” is an incredible ear treat.

When I heard “Redbone,” I was certain this had to be a Prince outtake, something found in the vaults somewhere. But no, no, this is Childish Gambino. Again, this is his talent, he has this ability to not just channel the sounds of others, but to make them his own. I can’t stress this enough, he’s not EMULATING other artists, it’s just that he is able to do this himself.

[A brief aside: It’s too bad that so much of music appreciation is driven by comparison. I mean, I do it a lot myself, I’m aware of that. Maybe it’s because some critics like / need to prove they know other music, but many times it can take away from the artistry of what musicians are doing here. People may get the wrong impression that work is derivative or rides on the coattails of others’ works. Everything comes from something, but that doesn’t weaken or detract from these great artistic expressions.]

“California” is unexpected sunshine sounds, almost daffy, channeling reggae. But it has such an incredible arrangement, listen how the ting sounds work with the blowing sounds, forming a percussive background … It’s hard to keep track of the lyrical matter, but it’s oddly compelling. I had to listen to it twice. I’m still not even sure if I LIKE it, but I can’t ignore it. That says something.

From start to finish, the album is impossible to ignore. It shouldn’t be ignored. It is a cultural mixtape, it is a sound lover’s paradise, and there’s so much to glean from it. You could listen to the vocal performances, you could focus on the instrumental bedding, you could pay attention to the electronic effects and the surreal audio washes …

It has that rare quality of being instantly compelling and then consistently rewarding, standing up to lots of pausing, rewinding, relistening. You can listen to 2 minutes of a song and say, “I really like this!” Listen to the next two songs, go back to that song you liked and be like, “Wait, I didn’t hear (insert some value here) this before.” The album is only about 49 minutes long, but I spent about an hour and a half giving it my first listen. I’d hear something and have to stop it and listen to it again.

My second listen was a pure, organic listen, letting it play all the way through, and I was hearing so much running through it. I heard a genuine longing for love, the occasional sprinklings of fear, a little sadness, lots of passion, and a fair portion of basic human need. I heard fierce pride and vulnerable dependence.

And I heard an artist. I heard great music. I heard organs, I heard church music, I heard dance music, I heard funk and rock and blues. The backing vocals, the gospel choral sounds, the harmonies throughout, what a sumptuous aural journey. Just check out the gorgeous beauty of “The Night Me and Your Mama Met,” with the vocal “oooohs” and the instrumental bedding telling you everything you need to know without actually being told a thing. That is TALENT, a talent that allows you in on a story without betraying confidences.

And that’s another thing. This music allows for subtlety. It allows for the fierce passion of direct vocals as well as just allowing moods and sounds to create their own messages. There’s just so much going on. And it’s open to your interpretation, it lends itself to your experiences without relying on them. It stands as its own thing, definitely, but with the space for you to find your own place in it.

If you like “wah wah” guitar effects, you get them. If you like great beats, you get them. If you like soulful vocals, you get them. If you want stuff you can dance to, swoon to, get lost in, Childish Gambino delivers. “Awaken, My Love!” is such a dynamite record. And I know it’ll keep growing on me.

Do I think it’s a better record than Lady Bey’s “Lemonade?” I … don’t know. I’m not sure. I need to live with it more. But I’ll say that it is, at the very least, a compelling counterpart, a worthy challenger. The last time I was this impressed and blown away by an album, I was listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” (and then Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly). And if you’re in the conversation with Beyonce and Kendrick, that’s a good conversation to be in.

Pick up “Awaken, My Love!” Have some love. I did, and I’m all the richer for it.

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