Childish Gambino has always presented himself as something of an anomaly; a blatantly talented, yet sensitively rogueish creator of melodically modern, somewhat eccentric hip-hop tapestries, both observant and introspective. For a moment, let’s consider Gambino as an entity separate from Donald Glover, the man behind the myth, the writer, the comedian, the sharp, witty pundit on subjects of modernity, masculinity and self-awareness. In theory, the two seem somewhat incongruous.
But let’s get it out of the way. Gambino’s complete U-turn on previous stylings totally works. “Awaken, My Love!” is a simmering, passionately explosive flirtation that darts between psychedelic soul and radio friendly prog. It’s fun, friendly, and funky as hell. The two personas of Gambino and Glover mesh in ways unexpected, inspiring and really, really beautiful.
It’s hard not to mention opening track Me and Your Mama; a desperate hug of an opening. Harnessing a beautiful, choral catharsis before sudden chaos, a sinister, snarling guitar hook follows. Backed by thunderous drums, warm bass and a crooning chorus of backing singers, we’re slapped in the feels with a breathy, intense puppy love, despite the lyrics adamantly claiming the blatant, window-punchingly desperate passion is anything but.
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Gambino then quickly sets about showcasing a whimsical skill at revitalising the kind-of-gone-but-not-forgotten funk and soul paradigm with new flavours and textures that pull from contemporary R&B and Hip-Hop. Zombies is, despite being lyrically ham-fisted, a refreshing take on the vintage soul that oxygenates AML, introducing more modern concepts such as synth bass and flecks of auto tune to psych-funk mainstays such as fuzzed-out guitar and hooky, choral backing vocals that bookend the track with a blissful, controlled jam of an outro.
Terrified further corroborates Gambino’s effortless old-meets-new amalgamation, continuing the synth-bass trip with a texture laden slow burner, showing brief flashes of the washed-out, reverberating vocal pop of Sober and 3005, powerful players in Gambino’s arsenal. AML progresses Gambino’s tried and true methods used on the aforementioned tracks, though, by introducing analogue warmth into the proceedings, leading to a creamy mix throughout, complimenting the sheen of the more modern elements of AML to yield a somewhat timeless fruit. Token ear worm California is likely the poster child for AML’s brand of amalgamation; you’ll either love it, or hate it, but chances are, it’ll grow on you massively.
The conversational style with which Gambino relates the themes of the music in the latter half of the album, starting with the sweet toothed, sensual Redbone, sometimes makes AML feel closer to a concept album, in which Glover relates the story of him and his partner’s meeting to his son. From here, AML’s greatest strengths become clear. When tenderness and sincerity permeates AML, Gambino’s voice comes to the forefront and it works extremely well; it is undeniable that the man has a way with melody, and there are small, blissful points, lightly peppered throughout, wherein Gambino’s Kauai era pop merges with the dusty soul of the 70’s and genuinely sounds like something new.
AML does have some flaws, however. There are moments in the first half of the record wherein it’s impossible to not compare it to seminal works from the funk and soul whirlpool. Have Some Love, Boogieman and Riot, though definitely enjoyable, just stray way too close to pastiche. Though there’s obviously no problem with celebrating the joyfulness of the work of your forebears, there are so many moments where it seems like Gambino’s own identity is lost and Maggot Brain takes over.
For a mind so sharp and indelible also, there seems to be a couple of bizarre moments wherein lyrical content flies out of the window (keep your ear open for please don’t find me rude/But I don’t eat fast food). Not an entirely pervasive issue, considering how much there is to like here, but it does seem wasteful considering how talented Gambino is with producing imagery and building small worlds with tangible, breathing characters and situations (but then again, if you want to pull on that macrocosmic thread, there’s always Glover’s show, Atlanta, to enjoy).
“Awaken, My Love!” is a marked departure from previous trappings, but despite a couple of loose screws, it works surprisingly well, breathing life into a long dormant genre that has found its voice in continued evolution and change within other genres as opposed to a steady continuation upon solid foundations. For an accessible testimony to the pros, cons and ultimate rewards of love, reinvention and reverence, look no further than Gambino’s most playful record yet.