Nick Bollinger weighs in on the third album as Childish Gambino from Community and Atlanta TV star Donald Glover.
Donald Glover is not a person who seems to notice creative boundaries. Initially a writer on the TV comedy 30 Rock, he became better known as an actor, playing Troy Barnes in the popular series Community. More recently he has found acclaim as both creator and star of his own left-field series Atlanta, while parallel to all of this has been his musical career. As Childish Gambino he has created an identity as a credible rapper.
The third Childish Gambino record came out just before Christmas, but with this one Glover seems to be asserting yet another set of credentials. Well, he’s not rapping, that’s for sure. The track that opens Childish Gambino’s latest album Awaken, My Love! starts out all cosmic and choral, before breaking into a crunching rock riff, complete with a tonsil-shredding vocal from Glover. But once he’s got your attention things settle into what could broadly be described as funk.
There’s an unmistakable flavour of 70s retro about the whole thing, sometimes sounding like a dead-ringer for George Clinton’s Funkadelic, at other times recalling the dense rhythms and fuzztoned guitars of the Isley Brothers.
Working with his frequent associate, the Swedish producer Ludwig Goransson, Glover has created a fair 70s facsimile, but is there anything more to it than that? Is there a reason Glover has turned to a style that was just beginning to be edged out by the incoming hip-hop around the time he was born?
There is something about the mix of funk and social commentary found in the music of that period that seems to resonate with Glover. A song like ‘Boogieman’ is a case in point: a feel-good funk groove combined with a topical commentary on racial fear. It’s a theme Glover has touched on before in his hip-hop stuff, but the almost Zappa-ish virtuosity of this performance operates as a kind of Trojan horse, sneaking the serious message through the gates in the guise of mad funk fun.
The paranoia and racism that no African-American can be unaware of, is a pervasive theme of Awaken, My Love! But typically, it seems Glover can’t restrict himself to just one idea, even for the duration of one album. And there are other seemingly unrelated strands that are nevertheless woven through this disc. On ‘Baby Boy’ he references Sly Stone in the spidery sound of the clavinet, which defined the Sly classic ‘Just Like A Baby’. And aptly, if a little derivatively, Glover is singing his own ode to parenthood, another recurring theme of the disc.
Elsewhere the funk fades into a mellower kind of 70s soul which throws more emphasis on Glover’s voice. And while, fine actor that he is, he convincingly carries off a whole range of voices, tracks like these don’t quite fulfil the funky promise of the first half.
Awaken, My Love! is uneven, but has excellent moments. Donald Glover has plenty to say – some of it personal, some political and some just preposterous – and with this record he’s found new ways of unloading his busy head. What medium this polymath will choose to express himself next is anyone’s guess. More television? Movies? Musicals? Or maybe he’ll take up architecture?
Songs featured: Me and Your Mama, Zombies, Have Some Love, Riot, Boogieman, Redbone, Baby Boy.
Awaken, My Love! is available on Glassnote Records.