Childish Gambino 'Awaken, My Love!' Review: MC sheds nerd rap past on raw, emotional album


Most hip-hop fans have already made up their mind on Childish Gambino, the rap alter-ego of Donald Glover. He entered the music industry as a self-proclaimed outsider, pushing music teeming with cheeky wordplay, and often targeted at lampooning hip-hop culture itself. Case in point: His nonsensical name, which was created in a Wu-Tang name generator. As a result, Glover's music never strayed too far from the swelling chip on his shoulder about the fact nobody believed he could make it in a culture that celebrated the battle-worn and dangerous. But Gambino created a space for himself in the genre with his punchlines, and on each release, from Royalty to Because the Internet, he's rubbed it in the face of his early doubters. 

However, the Childish Gambino that made many a Tumblr dashboard swoon with his effervescent fanboy approach to hip-hop is near unrecognizable on his third studio album, Awaken, My Love!. The album is a departure from Gambino in everything but name; he doesn't spit any raps and lists no collaborators, A-list or otherwise. What he brings instead is 11 tracks of hypnotic gospel, often coupled with a thundering falsetto that carries undeniable echoes of D'Angelo and Prince.

It amounts to an unapologetically personal statement for Gambino, one that dramatically lifts his artistic persona out of the kitsch and into more consequential and eternal subject matter. They're songs about desperate, soul-consuming love, the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood and inter-generational pain. Ultimately, it doubles as an unofficial counterpart to the ambitious new series Atlanta that he created, wrote and starred in. To that end, the Pharos event that introduced this new Gambino music also aired three episodes of the series for attendees. 

"I never really saw them as different things," Glover told Billboard in November. 

Awaken, My Love! follows a similar narrative to Atlanta. With both the show and the album — in turn, visually and aurally — Glover's framework attempts to communicate what it feels like to be black in America, and more specifically, what it feels like to be a black father in America. While Gambino publicly doesn't delve into details about his spouse or his child (we don't officially know his child's gender, but Awaken, My Love!'s "Baby Boy" is our best guess), in his art he reflects tenderly on both. If Awaken, My Love! is aimed at anyone it may be an aural time capsule for his child. 

In "Baby Boy," he opens with a faint, compassionate description of a child, "Little hands, little feet. Tiny heart, tiny beat." The following track, "The Night Me and Your Mama Met," is a soothing instrumental, channeling bits of Pink Floyd into its funk, fit to soundtrack a night spent tripping alongside a loved one on a romantic vista. It relates a tenderness that would have felt very out of place on an earlier Gambino project.

Concurrently, Gambino offers a candid reflection of black identity and spirituality, and uses a tapestry of black genres to deliver it. There are notes of prominent '70s funk and soul acts: Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, even a bit of Michael Jackson. Gambino emulates them with grace, nodding not only to their musical innovations, but also to the context in which they created their empowering odes to black joy and black pain. 

There's nothing coincidental about this throwback. Glover sees parallels between the sociopolitical climate that's birthed movements like Black Lives Matter and the civil unrest from decades past.

"How do you start a global revolution, really?" he told Billboard. "Is that possible with the systems we've set up? There's something about that '70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution." 

It's a feeling Gambino exudes with a tangible fervor throughout Awaken, My Love!. "Riot" appears to very literally offer a sonic portrait of the rage that's filled the streets of American cities, like Ferguson, Missouri, Chicago and New York following police killings of young black men. Similarly, the Prince-esque "Redbone" implores the listener during its chorus to "stay woke," a phrase that's become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

If Gambino is tapping into the values and sounds of the movement for black lives, the message bears particular resonance after the election of Donald Trump. We're already seeing the early effects of Trump's rise in the ever-defiant industry: Overtly political statements consumed this year's American Music Awards. It's not hard to see why. 

We have a president-elect whose divisive rhetoric, and staunchest supporters, have sparked a tangible whitelash against the country's multicultural foundations. But in an album that, like many pieces of art, have inadvertently tied themselves to Donald Trump — some through mere happenstance — Gambino's parting words in Awaken, My Love!'s final track, "Stand Tall," offer hope.

"Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall. If you are strong, you cannot fall." 

On Awaken, My Love! Gambino is no longer content to careen between cheeky punchlines about cereals and cartoon characters. He, like hip-hop's standard bearer Kendrick Lamar, has created anthems of revolution to deliver timely sentiments of community and inclusiveness. Gambino has moved well beyond parody. He is, rather fittingly, awakened.