Review: Childish Gambino’s Funky, Flawed ‘Awaken, My Love!’

by Connor Harrison
BU News Service

“You will find there is no safe place to hide,” Childish Gambino warns on “Zombies”, the fourth track on his soul/funk experimental album “Awaken, My Love!” If you’re the kind of Gambino fan who swears by his cheesy summer camp nostalgia, or just enjoyed hearing him rap, “Took the G out your waffle, all ya got left is ego,” on EP’s Freaks & Greeks, Donald’s rap-less third studio album is risky territory.

After a few disappointing listens, I threw on his older albums, shuffled them in with “Awaken, My Love!” and thought back to something Kanye West observed at his 2009 VH1 Storyteller’s show: “So few hip-hop artists have ever advanced. Their songs on their seventh and eighth albums sound exactly like the songs on their first albums.”

Genre jumping is a tall order in the rap game, and has produced a litany of results. Kid Cudi was panned for his rock efforts on Speedin’ Bullet to Heaven, but Kanye West fared better with synth-pop on 808s & Heartbreak, producing an album that spilled over in emotional vulnerability which influenced singers and rappers like Drake, Cudi and, of course, Gambino.

What’s been historically more successful is incorporating other genres organically. West Coast hip-hop reinvented rap in the early 90s with “G-funk”. But Childish Gambino here isn’t simply blending rap with funk the way Dre and Snoop did – he’s not rapping at all. He’s not making beats. This isn’t a rap album. And the jump to soul/funk is far more pronounced than Kanye’s jump to synthpop.

Don’t worry, Gambino is still here, and he’s not alone; frequent collaborator Ludwig Göransson, who had a major hand on Camp, Because the Internet, Kauai and in composing the music for Community, is a major producer on “Awaken, My Love!” As such, there are some sonic reminders of his previous albums. I caught a few the first time around: the lullaby at the beginning of “Me and Your Mama” and the post-hook on “Terrified” harken back to the xylophone on “Kids” and gave me “Sober” vibes. You’ll find plenty more.

But you shouldn’t expect the old sound at all. These aren’t his keyboard and string driven beats that drove previous albums. These are lengthy, experimental, often slow-paced funk/soul medleys. Glover is all in. It’s background 4/20 stuff, late night highway music (if you’re caffeinated as hell). Does your dad have a birthday coming up? Throw these songs on a playlist with the The Isley Brothers and see if anyone notices.

In an interview with Billboard, he confirmed as such – this is an album actively pursuing a 70s sound, and it definitely takes a certain mood. For better or worse, Gambino rewards patience: “Zombies” for instance crawls on through three verses, but draws out its catchy harpsichord hook featuring Kari Faux into an extended bass and keys outro complete with guitar solo from Ludwig.

That’s not to say the album isn’t without it’s misfires. “California” turns Jean Knight’s “Mr Big Stuff” tropical, but Gambino intentionally sounds like he’s trying to audition for a musical act on a Carnival Cruise. The beat on “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” gets annoyingly twangy, and there’s no lyrics to keep us occupied. “Riot” is too chaotic, and “Baby Boy”, thematically one of the center pieces on the album, put me to sleep.

Where Gambino stays Gambino is in the lyrics – themes of love and insecurity that have dominated his past flows are here, muffled behind the funk, but just as vulnerable as he’s always been. The same romantic writing back to his dream girl on “Letter Home”, or lashing out at a pretender on the angst-ridden “Heartbeat”, now has a child with a mysterious girlfriend. According to US Weekly, we don’t know anything about the mother or the baby itself. But “Awaken, My Love!” is his open letter to his child about the circumstances of his birth, dad’s love life and the mistakes that came with it, and the socially and culturally volatile environment he was born into.

The two lead singles, “Me and Your Mama” and “Redbone” drive the surface narrative of his relationship with his baby mama. On the former, he opens the album by declaring true love: “Girl you really got a hold on me/So this isn’t just puppy love”. But by “Redbone”, which occurs at the midway point, things have gotten ugly: “Baby get so scandalous/How’d it get so scandalous?” and suggests it’s, “Too late/you wanna make it right, but now it’s too late.” By the end of “Baby Boy”, Gambino pleads, “Oh, ’cause I had my doubts, oh!/Don’t take my baby boy/Don’t take my pride and joy/I hope I stay close, I hope I stay close.” Don’t let the stonery beats fool you, this is not a very uplifting album.

The stakes are much higher for Gambino on here. The fears of fatherhood strip away his bravado, and we are left with a wiser, humbled, more cynical man desperate to figure out a way to way to navigate all the problems of the world and his own, fleeting relationship – all for his kid. It’s moving to hear him give what amounts to a “History Has Its Eyes on You” speech to his son across 50 minutes, even if large chunks of that are hidden in the funk.

Eventually though, Gambino finds the courage to let his cynicism fade to brief pride. On “Stand Tall”, the album’s finale and best song, he passes along advice given to him by his own father: “Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall/If you are strong you cannot fall/There is a voice inside us all/So smile when you can, when you can.”

That sounds like the same Childish Gambino to me. Believing in himself to jump from writing comedy to writing rap, and now, on the grandest stage, desperately trying to believe he knows how to handle fatherhood. “Awaken, My Love!” is flawed, but it will grow on you if you can accept it for exactly what it is – a mature story told in an entirely different way.

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