I don’t intend to come across as a hipster when I say this.
That’s a questionable sentence to start my first review with, but whatever.
I’ve been a fan of Donald Glover before I ever knew him as Childish Gambino. I was first introduced to him in 2009 by both his acting work on the hilarious NBC show Community and his work as part of the sketch comedy troupe Derrick Comedy (I’m not saying they specialize in dark comedy, but their most viral video is called “Bro Rape“). I first discovered his work as Childish Gambino right when Camp came out in 2011, and I distinctly remember my first song from him being “All the Shine”. Upon hearing the first line (“What the fuck do y’all niggas really want?”), I immediately turned off the song and pretty much never listened to him again for a few years. My naive mind thought that it was too gimmicky to take him seriously as a rapper.
Boy, was I wrong.
Fast forward to three years later, when I went through a phase in my life where I listened to because the internet religiously and firmly believed that it spoke to me in a way that few other albums did. I made amends with his discography shortly afterwards and ended up becoming a fan. “Awaken, My Love!” is the first Gambino album I’ve gotten to experience as it dropped while being a fan of his.
A lot of people aren’t really happy with the direction that Glover took with this album, straying away completely from his alternative hip-hop roots and going towards an old-school sound inspired by albums such as Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain. A lot of people got riled up when the singles of this album (“Me and Your Mama” and “Redbone”) came out since they desperately wanted to hear Glover rap again. I get where they’re coming from. I’d really love to hear that as well, but I can’t deny that I don’t like what I got with this album.
“Awaken, My Love!” starts with the first of the two singles, “Me and Your Mama”, a six-minute epic that shifts from soothing R&B to spine-chillingly emotional rock and back again, already setting the bar extremely high for the rest of the eleven tracks. “Have Some Love” comes next, a heartwarming and more stripped down-sounding song about the power of love and unity that’s definitely more timely than ever this year. The following song, “Boogieman”, centers around an admittedly irresistible riff and carries a heavy message about how African-Americans are portrayed in today’s society as fearful caricatures. “Zombies” has a groove just as strong as the previous tracks but seems like a bit of a step down, to be completely honest. The lyrics carry a strong metaphor, but hearing a woman seductively whispering “We’re eating you for profit / there is no way to stop it” feels cheesy to me.
However, the album quickly regains its footing and takes several steps back up with “Riot”, easily one of the highlights of the album, even though it is the shortest song. The melodies are infectious and complement Glover’s singing perfectly, and there are so many layers to the production that it makes for a generally fun listen. The only gripe I genuinely have with the song is that I wish it was longer. This song is followed by “Redbone”, the second of the two singles, and another fantastic song. Glover utilizes a unique pitched-up voice that works surprisingly well with the song and honestly doesn’t sound like a gimmick. The song has continuously been described as “babymaking music”, but I feel like that’s genuinely the best way to describe this.
“California”, another one of the shorter songs, is a more reggae-influenced song about a Cali lifestyle that I hated on first listen, due to how eclectic it sounded and the fact that Glover’s vocals were practically saturated with a very audible Autotune that had only been used sparingly on previous songs. On another listen, everything sorta clicked, and I found out that what I thought were flaws were actually aesthetic choices that added to the whole atmosphere of the song. This is a song for the daytime or an afternoon on the beach.
“Terrified” is a continuation of “California”, but from a darker perspective, detailing the bad side of a life in California. It’s like the moment when you stop acknowledging the silver lining and remember that the rest of the cloud is still there. It’s a stylistically dark-sounding song from the get-go, with Glover’s vocals sounding gently over stark, reverberating soundscapes before the rest of the instruments are added and the full groove is heard. The outro is very poignant, featuring a little girl singing lyrics such as “You can’t run from me / you can’t hide from me”, which take on a new light after listening to the next track, “Baby Boy”, the longest track on the album (a few seconds longer than “Me and Your Mama”). This song is essentially Glover’s version of “Only One”, showing him addressing his recently-born son with all of the optimism and fears that a new father would have. It also boasts an emotionally-charged outro led by a touching spoken-word message from Glover to his son.
“The Night Me and Your Mama Met” is a beautiful, gorgeous-sounding instrumental that carries some of the same emotions from “Baby Boy”, having a powerful guitar solo that is arguably the most Funkadelic-esque moment on this entire album. This is a song for late-night campfires (bonfires, if you will). The album concludes with the uplifting “Stand Tall”, centered around a moral Glover learned from his parents that he passes onto his own child in “Baby Boy” (“walk tall, little one, walk tall…”), and is already a perfect finale to the album, with a laidback sound populated with choirs and guitars, but then there’s a switch-up. Heavily Autotuned vocals and flutes carry the song from its first part to its second part, which starts with a synth-led interlude that is probably one of the greatest things I’ve ever listened to. It feels like you’re ascending to a higher plane of existence. It’s beautiful. After this, the song goes to a relatively hip-hop-esque beat with acoustic guitar in the background alongside the synths and choirs. It’s a song for late evenings and sunsets on the beach. It’s fantastic.
I’d be lying if I told you that I was unsatisfied with the sounds of this album. I think it’s a fantastic album and sounds like evolution for Glover more than anything. Although the sound of “Awaken, My Love!” falls mostly under R&B and blues rock, there’s still a lot of experimentation, just like with other Gambino albums that really be classified as just “hip hop”. Donald Glover is a forward-thinking artist in every sense of the phrase, just like all great artists are, and has a constantly changing sound to boot. To address those that don’t like the direction of this album, maybe time is the solution. I’m not immune to this mindset; I hated Kanye’s Yeezus when I first heard it, but grew a lot of respect for it after coming back to it in a few years’ time. At the end of it all, it doesn’t matter how albums sound as long as they still have that emotion, and “Awaken, My Love!” is a very emotional album. It’s like hearing traditional Gambino emotion given a fresh coat of paint and under a new medium.
Best Tracks: “Riot”, “Me and Your Mama”, “Have Some Love”, “The Night Me and Your Mama Met”, “Stand Tall”