Donald Glover’s new record brings biggest surprise of year

Chris Duncan

Donald Glover is a jack of all trades, and in many cases, a master as well. He’s found different personas and success in a multiple media, including standup, film and television, but the most interesting persona of all is easily Childish Gambino.

Childish Gambino began in 2008 with the self-released mixtape Sick Boi, an album that relied on hip-hop gimmicks in an attempt to be relevant. He has since grown to push boundaries and focus on more personal subject matter, especially with his 2013 album Because the Internet, which brought his ever-evolving abstract hip-hop sound to a close, emphasizing loneliness and evidential existentialism. With this newest album, Awaken, My Love!, Glover is headed in a different direction, adopting a psychedelic soul sound to transcend genre and deliver one of the strangest experimental projects this year has to offer.

For longtime fans of Glover’s output as Childish Gambino, the album’s lead single and first song, “Me and Your Mama,” came as a shock. It wasn’t familiar to most fans — some wouldn’t make the jump. However, for those willing to evolve with Glover, “Me and Your Mama” reveals itself as a bright and explosive track of pure passion, easily standing as one of the best — if not the best — single of the year. As Glover wails about his relationship with his child’s mom and their future, it’s impossible not to be captivated by his enthusiastic delivery.

This transition isn’t as surprising as some make it out to be. Glover has always fostered moods and sounds that aren’t replicable. On Because the Internet and his 2014 EP Kauai, he hinted at a transition into R&B/soul. Awaken, My Love! takes it a step further.

Coming off the six-minute musical orgasm that is “Me and Your Mama,” Glover chooses to cool down a bit and foray into the sensual side of soul. The record’s third track, “Boogieman,” brings one of the best grooves the project while commenting on the racially motivated fear of African-Americans that persists in modern society as he sings, “With a gun in your hand, I’m the boogieman, I’m gonna come and get you.”

Other songs such as “Redbone” and “California” show off Glover’s taste for eccentric production and lavish instrumentation. Glover and longtime collaborator Ludwig Göransson contribute some of the best production on this LP. On “Redbone,” they bring in pitched/filtered vocals, a Wurlitzer piano and a glockenspiel to surprise the listener. “California” will likely be seen as controversial because it clashes with the album’s overall mood, but the B3 Hammond organ carries this track to transcend any theme.

In the moments where he does slip up, Glover manages to keep his sensibilities. “Terrified” misses its mark, bringing a strong message to the table to follow up on “California,” but the Moog synthesizer and programmed drums clash. Occasionally, his funkadelic vibes feel just a little too powerful.

Casual listeners looking for another “Sweatpants” or “Freaks and Geeks” won’t be satisfied by this album. After the artistic success of Awaken, My Love!, there’s little chance fans will ever hear another hip-hop album from Childish Gambino.

Awaken, My Love! accomplishes a feat few albums can — it brings a retrospective vibe but sounds like nothing done before. It’s an abstract representation of Glover’s feelings, bringing in some of the richest and most compelling instrumentation funk can offer. For these reasons alone, this LP is a must-listen. It’s not perfect, but perfection wasn’t this album’s aim — raw emotion and soul are what make this project so compelling.