Album Review: #5: Childish Gambino - Awaken, My Love!
by sarah muhammad
Taking a step into untouched territory is not something that you shy away from when you have career experience in literally almost every art known to man. Early this fall, Donald Glover premiered the debut of his comedy drama Atlanta on FX, a show that would later earn him several major award nominations, including Critics’ Choice. But of course in true Donald style, it wouldn’t be a complete 2016 without releasing some music as well. His first single “Me and Your Mama”, released early November, set the perfect tone for the eclectic transition that he planned to make for his newest project. However, with the release of Awaken, My Love! earlier this month, I would come to find that the album is not a shift of sound but instead a complete and masterful revival of the 60’s/70’s/early 80’s funk/rock/soul/R&B era. Imagine literally being kicked into a time machine where the arrangements are all original, unsampled content (all original production by Gambino and Ludwig Göransson) with influences so strong that they suck into a time warp. The sound that Gambino creates on this album is so powerful that his vocal performance and instrumentation overshadow the actual lyrical content at some points. On “Me and Your Mama”, the song starts off soft and spacy and abruptly switches mid-way to a very dark and heavy territory in which Gambino desperately reveals his paranoia (“Can't stand it, backhanded/They wanna see us falling apart/You know that I love you/So let me into you”) regarding his relationship with a woman being attacked. The next song “Have Some Love” slides right in drawing undeniable parallels with both “Come Together” by The Beatles and also Parliament Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That”, with the jingling rhythms and chorus vocals that appear throughout the song. The chorus (“Have a word for your brother/Have some time for one another/Really love one another/It's so hard to find”), represents a unity theme amongst the hippy crowd popular in the 60’s/70’s, but also holds strong today, where disunity amongst society has created strong dissent. “Boogieman” is a psychedelic funk track which also holds strong influence from Parliament Funkadelic, as well as Bootsy Collins and KC and The Sunshine Band. The lyrical content of the song is a bit more urgent in this track where Gambino paints the irony of the image of Black men in America being dangerous and deadly despite the presence of police forces who harm and kill them (“With a gun in your hand/I'm the boogieman/I'm gonna come and get you”). The phrase ‘boogieman’ in this song represents a double entendre of Gambino as both a monster in the eyes of the law, as well the “boogey man”, creating the rhythms for his people to dance and groove to. Gambino delivers his best vocal performance on the track “Zombies”, offering a very sharp and steady vibrato over with heavy guitar riffs that are reminiscent of Led Zeppelin. The ‘zombies’, (much like the boogieman in the previous track), represent members of society who attack and feed off of the success of those around them, like vultures (“All I see is zombies/Hear them screaming at her/They can smell your money/And they want your soul”). Other strong influences on this album can be heard on “Riot” (Sly & The Family Stone), “California” (The Beach Boys), and perhaps the strongest on “Redbone” (Prince). “Redbone”, the standout single on the album, draws heavy influence from the late musician in both stylistic arrangements and vocal variety. The soulful tune features a strong slap bass line, syncopated percussion for a groove element, a glockenspiel, electric piano and in the outro heavy guitar rhythms in a continuous two-minute outro. The vocals that Gambino delivers on the track appear to be pitched in sound but are in fact not, signifying that he changed the sound on his voice to an airy Prince imitation, including high pitched screams. More personal and sentimental tracks appear at the end of the album with “Baby Boy” and “Stand Tall”. “Baby Boy”, more acoustic and deliberately solemn in sound, details Gambino’s fears being a new father in relation to issues with his son’s mother (“All the pain, all the tears/Many nights, many years/This love for me is fading/You waited, but I never came home to you...Don't take my baby boy/Don't take my pride and joy”). Though this deeply personal expression towards the end of projects is not uncommon for Gambino, we are seeing his motivation in light of his son for the first time, creating a more compelling and intensely emotional feel. On the final track, “Stand Tall”, Gambino delivers the final message as an encouraging one to his son, with advice passed down from his own father to him (“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”), reflecting on his own endeavors and amazing accomplishments in life where he thought that he may fail but he pursued them anyway. Having this track be the final of the album is extremely important to the shift in creativity that the Gambino decided to take on this album, with a complete departure from every element of hip hop, and as a complete shot in the dark gone incredibly right.
Best Tracks: “Redbone”/“Zombies”
Best Production: “Me and Your Mama”/“Boogieman”