Donald Glover’s artistry blossomed in recent years. It might have been an existential crisis in a hotel around the release of Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet in 2013. It might have been that he was finally allowed to write and act his own thoughts instead of helping Tina Fey on 30 Rock or playing Dan Harmon’s affable jock Troy Barnes on Community. Whatever it is: Glover is one of the most important artists right now, and his Childish Gambino alter ego is finally ready to step up to that level.
Gambino used to lament the fact that people thought he was just a rapper with dick jokes. So he wrote dick rhymes instead. He was always a lyricist who could pack a laugh into a bar, but also struggled with trying to express his emotional life struggles.
When he broke out on the scene with his 2011 EP, everybody was in love with “Freaks and Geeks” – it embodied who they thought Gambino was. My favorite track at the time, and still is, was “Not Going Back,” which closes the five song set and introduces the notion that Glover wasn’t just going to be a pawn anymore. He was going to be his own self. It took a while though. Camp, his first official studio album, tried to balance what helped launch his career (well-timed puns and pop culture references) and topics he was dying to explore (race, love, politics, money, etc.). I enthusiastically reviewed the album for Paste when I still didn’t understand who he was, and more importantly who I was.
Over the years Glover matured and I matured with him. Because the Internet was praised by a lot, but not by me. I had already grown to expect more from Gambino, and while the sophomore album provided more, it wasn’t more of what I wanted. But he provided more of something I wanted: his artistry.
He began thinking on a larger scale by wearing the same outfit over and over for some reason, providing impromptu think pieces on radio stations, and a short film. All of this unfolded while his long-gestating FX television series Atlanta seemed to be in development hell. Why else would the series not be made to immediately follow a successful album?
Because Donald Glover was too many steps ahead of the rest of us. He waited, giving us more Gambino mixtapes as the years passed. I can’t assume what he was up to all those years, but I’d like to think he has an entire album he scrapped because it’s not what he wanted to say.
Eventually Atlanta came out and became the best show of 2016. Then, as an encore, Donald Glover decided to release Childish Gambino’s third LP. It’s not a rap album. It’s not hip-hop. It’s a funk-filled soul album with large chorus groups singing verses, songs where his vocals are distorted, and long instrumental sections that prove he’s not about dick jokes, or raps, anymore.
The two singles released prior to the album – “Me and Your Mama” and “Redbone” are the most radio friendly. They highlight the fact that Gambino knows how to make a smash hit. He just might not always want to. The rest of the songs are proggy funk tracks inspired by the likes of George Clinton. “Zombies,” which comes in the middle of the album, is the slow jam banger about… well, seemingly about those around you “eating you for profit.” Gambino has gone below the surface to produce commentary on social norms with catchy hooks.
It’s the type of album that is atmospheric. Awaken, My Love! is meant to engulf you. Don’t expect this to provide a party anthem. Instead sit back with a glass of whiskey or light up a bowl and close your eyes. Gambino grew up, and he wants to educate you.