In the oeuvre of Childish Gambino - like many of Donald Glover’s works across mediums - the clarity of the material can be centered and sacrificed all at once. Gambino is indeed a mastermind: first introduced via a mixtape series of a hobbyist fare, we’ve witnessed several evolutions and revolutions of his character over the course of six years. In the interest of self-disclosure, I admit I’ve kept close watch on his trajectory finding several mirrors into my own self-discovery for all the ugly immaturity and beautiful growth in being a young Black man with an affinity for words. Depending on when one peers in, they’ll find: an insecure burgeoning Black superhero, a nerd’s ruthless revenge fantasy (with Asian fetishism and rape jokes to match), a tortured renaissance man typecast as a token, a nigga who’s really from Stone Mountain, and an Internet-obsessed pop star electing to disappear before the apex of his success.
Awaken, My Love! is no exception to the rule of clarity, but it’s a shining achievement in its execution because it knows precisely the record it wants to be. It’s an extended homage to the lineage of funk and soul - Sly, Prince, Bootsy, Clinton, on and on - and it’s a set of instructions to Glover’s newborn son, born into a world always on the verge of burning. There’s protest and slick talk and failure and fear, endlessly treading the line between character and autobiographical while fully concerning itself with the details. If it’s anything like its predecessors, the coming months will merely clue in, rather than unfold the narrative; who are “Me” and “You” and whom are the “Zombies” coming to take us? As theories and storylines abound, Glover ensures to leave enough undone for the listeners to spell the rest out for themselves.
From the opener of “Me and Your Mama,” it’s clear Gambino focused on solidifying his place as a stellar vocalist, with a trademark falsetto often clashing with raspy grunts and frantic screaming as big as the instrumental itself, suddenly transitioning from an airy trap to psych-rock and back again. The vocality shapeshifts throughout the record, pitching and Auto-Tune deliberately used to harken back to aesthetics past from his childhood era of influence. The slow slur on “Boogieman” sounds like Gambino’s broadcasting from a spaceship, while the pitching on “Zombies” sounds like the same ship broke down and his back’s against the wall. But on a record like “California,” the poppiest and most out-of-place, the high-pitching accentuates the grating qualities of Gambino’s voice to do more harm than good. (The intentionality of such a choice is unclear as well: is it a shallow jab at today’s class of youthful MCs or an attempt to upstage them?) For all the bright spots, the album misfires when Gambino’s reaching too far out of range or utilizing the vocal manipulation to overcompensate for the influences he emulates.
Glover’s production pairing with longtime-collaborator Ludwig Göransson makes for yet another timeless exercise in sonic world-building. The Awaken, My Love! universe opts for the epic once more; where “because the internet” tossed classic soul hues onto a maximalist foreground, this album hones in on its sonic callbacks while being unafraid to glimpse into the future again. You hear it in the chorus backing the grooves on “Riot,” the crisp bassline underscoring the lowkey melodies on “Terrified,” but most dazzling in the movements of “Stand Tall:” a final salute of confidence to keep oneself whole that goes from a quiet riff to a falsetto riding the final optimistic swells out into the sunset. History’s recalibrating rather than rehashing itself; never once does the ride feel corny or overbearing on the ears, though the traces of Gambino corniness linger on through a bar on “Redbone” about calling his woman “chocolate cake and Kool-Aid” and an odd moment about not eating fast food on “Terrified.” But the insecurity and unsavory elements of his past work have fully shed themselves here, with no awkward or insensitive politics to hang on.
At 33, Donald Glover’s broken TV comedy records, landed a Star Wars role, and now he’s made an album damn good enough to silence even his pettiest critics. It’s an album for parenthood, for Black bodies, and for world peace in one fell swoop. It’s lean, easy to engage with, and right on time in a year where recontextualizing Golden Eras long gone is proving fruitful for a traumatic road ahead. He’s no longer “Weezy, but geeky,” he’s the diversified name-generated extension of a polymath dead set on building every world he dreams of. To declare Awaken, My Love! as an apex of the Gambino catalog is fitting on its own, yet an understatement of his long-proven potential to take us elsewhere. Finally, everyone will pay attention to whichever revolution he signs up for.