It’s been one month since Donald Glover (as Childish Gambino) released his third studio LP, ”Awaken, My Love!”, and surely, that’s enough time to have analyzed it. But this is a tough one. My initial reaction was negative. ”Awaken, My Love!” felt forced, a career’s worth of artistic evolution crammed into one record obsessed with showcasing the new Donald Glover. No longer is he the nerdy optimist with a case of “nice guy syndrome,” his raps filled with more punchlines than his stand-up sets. If 2013’s Because the Internet marked the beginning of a transitional phase for the artist, Glover’s new era of success is defined by even more self-seriousness found in everything from his interviews and his music to his first television show on FX. It’s a self-seriousness that very well may have landed him the role as Lando Calrissian in an upcoming Star Wars film.
It’s easy to look at all of this and roll your eyes at the change in his public persona – sometimes, I still do – but the fact of the matter is, he’s earned it. Everything Glover does is fueled by Kanye-sized ambition, and if he’s ever going to fail, have no doubt that he will fail boldly (a fact reinforced by this album’s epic closing statement, “Stand Tall”). And perhaps this is why, despite hardly liking ”Awaken, My Love!” at first, I kept coming back to it. And perhaps this is also why, a month later, I am finally writing this review to say that my perception has shifted. ”Awaken, My Love!” isn’t a perfect album, but its commitment to vision make it an essential component of Glover’s eclectic resume..
Let’s start with what doesn’t work. ”Awaken, My Love!” is anything but flat, and its songs cannot simply be sorted into “the good” and “the bad.” They’re in a constant state of motion, continually changing gears and rearranging themselves with the energy of a living organism. The result is good (or bad) songs with elements that contradict their apparent quality. “Boogieman,” for example, is one of the only tracks here without lyrical blunder. It expertly details the kind of paranoia the black community faces daily at the hands of law enforcement, making it one of the most lucid tracks here. Unfortunately, its verses are subjected to one of the most out-of-place vocal effects utilized by Glover on the album. His inflection is not enough to take away from the relevance of the song, but it is distracting.
And for the most part, vocal inflection is the album’s weakest component. Glover’s fans know he can sing well, so why he feels the need to distort his voice every time a track changes directions is a bit of a headscratcher. Lyrical flubs are nothing new to Glover, and though they are less abundant here than in the past, the maturation of everything else (and the fact that they’re no longer punchlines) makes them even more noticeable here (“Please don’t think I’m rude/But I don’t eat fast food/So don’t run to me”). On “Have Some Love,” Glover channels Funkadelic to convey an admirable sentiment with about as much depth as a vintage Dr. Pepper jingle. But none of this comes close to “California,” a baffling throwaway track that makes several references to California livin’ and Vine (yes, the social media platform) of all things under thick layers of vocoder and grating, cartoonish sound effects. It is a low point at the center of an album that otherwise, despite requiring repeat listens, does in fact have something to say.
When the album does work, it ranges from “pleasant” to “absolutely gripping.” “Me and Your Mama” is a career highlight, building from its lullabye-like introduction and bursting at the seams with passion and raw energy. Here, on the first track of his first album in three years, is the time for Glover to showcase his new artistic vision, and he does so almost too successfully – nothing quite stands up to the track until the album’s midpoint rolls around. Paranoia is a common theme throughout the album, with at least half of the songs containing some variation of the phrase “I’m gonna get ya!” But the album’s back half is decidedly less aggressive and finds Glover truly coming into his own. “Redbone” is an impressive vocal achievement for the artist with an impossibly catchy slap-bass line and twinkling keys that ultimately compliment the song’s call to “Stay woke!” Instrumentally, “Terrified” and “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” represent two mood extremes on the album, the former harboring murky synths and fearful imagery while the other’s lush guitar tones and vocalization represent love and romance in its purest state. But nothing quite stands up to the album’s opening and closing numbers like “Baby Boy,” a downtempo R&B number meant explicitly for Glover’s newborn son. Its sentiment basically boils down to Glover’s personal take on “You Are My Sunshine,” but it’s likely the most genuine and vulnerable Glover has ever sounded on record.
So decidedly, ”Awaken, My Love!” is a mixed bag, and you may wonder why it took me a month to reach that conclusion. After all, I suspect I knew this along, even amongst my most forward and immediate reactions to the album. The fact is, sometimes, what we want and what we get are two separate things. I recognized Glover’s ambition and even praised his decision to switch genres on paper, but his apparent inability to stay in one place for too long felt ingenuine to me, like a performer rushing to switch costumes in between acts. But I now believe that Glover knows what he wants to say; he just isn’t quite sure how to say it yet. In Chuck Klosterman’s new book, “But What if We’re Wrong?,” he asserts that we cannot accurately predict the future without viewing through the lens the past; thus, we cannot accurately predict the artist that will be synonymous with any genre or aesthetic until we’re viewing it in hindsight. But something tells me Glover follows a different philosophy. Love it or hate it, Glover continues to forge his own path towards stardom, and it doesn’t take another recap of his resume to tell that he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.