Childish Gambino AKA Donald Glover sounds like a man re-born on his latest effort ‘Awaken, My Love!’. Firstly, he doesn’t rap. Instead he reinvents himself as a soulful pariah with all the pizazz of peak Curtis Mayfield.
Opening track, ‘Away From Love’ could be a late contender for song of the year. An angelic female choir flutter over a synth line that sounds like a slow version of the hook from Dr Dre’s ‘Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang’. Then it all comes crashing down to earth with a screeching guitar line and Gambino howling and hooting like a deranged shaman.
Except from ‘Zombies’ - a misstep with its jarring auto-tuned vocals - the first half of the album keeps the momentum going from its glorious opening. Each of the songs are mini psychedelic odysseys to delve into and explore, scaling all the genres of African American musical expression - Funk, Soul, R&B. The issue is it can sound too much like a time capsule. The aptly named ‘Riot’ was even written with members of Funkadelic including George Clinton and wouldn’t sound out of place on their 1971 funk rock masterpiece ‘Maggot Brain’.
The second half lacks the urgency of the first half. At times it’s a welcome change of pace as on the heartbreaking ‘The Night Me and Your Mama Met” though it has the potential to put you to sleep on others, most notably the over-egged ‘California’ with its comedy vocals, schizophrenic percussion and stupid pan pipe flutters. Here the funk is more Red Hot Chilli Peppers than James Brown. While it might work for Kiedis and co, Gambino just sounds confused.
When Gambino plays it straight he sounds majestic so it's bewildering as to why he would return to his earlier career dalliances with comedy and music. It has no place and prevents the album from flourishing. His voice is versatile and capable of great emotion. When the music becomes too contrived it’s the shining beacon that guides the songs home.
It’s the perfect time for Gambino to come in and repackage soul and funk for a new audience and far more realistic to ask a college freshman to listen to Gambino than Sly and the Family Stone. The power to this level of appropriation is in the timing. It’s not contrived if it has purpose in the modern day.
When he sings, “Have a word for your brother, Have some time for one another” on the lilting soft jam ‘Have Some Love’ he sounds like the perfect antidote to a world ridden by the hateful rhetoric of 2016. There was a massive rise in social media hate speech during the US presidential election and here is Gambino asking us to set down our arms and join him in the quest for peace. We’ve not had much to cheer for this year but it looks like Childish Gambino is offering a light at the end of the tunnel.
Words: Richard Jones
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