When you first press play on “Awaken, My Love!”, please do yourself a favor: Do not, under any circumstance, expect Childish Gambino to start rapping. I know that may sound far-fetched knowing his previous albums, but expectations truly are everything when it comes to an album like this. A bold change of pace, “Awaken, My Love!” simultaneously tells the story of what we already knew about Donald Glover while also blowing our minds with something completely left-field and ambitious. Glover has been Hollywood’s golden boy for years; you just may not have realized it.
Before Childish Gambino rendered his stage name via the online Wu-Tang Clan Name Generator, he was a comedy sketch artist and writer for Derrick Comedy, creators of the viral phenomenon “Bro Rape”. By age 23, he became a writer for the critically acclaimed NBC sitcom 30 Rock with the help of one of the show’s stars, Tina Fey. About 3 years later he was cast for the role of Troy Barnes in Community (also on NBC). There is where Glover met Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson who handles production duties on all but two of this album’s 11 tracks (“Have Some Love”; “Riot”). Ludwig has produced on all three Childish Gambino studio albums, and the duo’s synergy is evident from the moment “Me and Your Mama” hits your headphones.
Today, Glover is the creator and star of the hit FX comedy series Atlanta which has received adoration from fans and critics alike in only its first season. And he will also be playing a young Lando Calrissian in the forthcoming Star Wars film that will focus on the early years of iconic smuggling space pilot Han Solo. Up until this December we have witnessed Donald Glover’s array of talents: writer, actor, (viral and stand-up) comedian, disk jockey, rapper; but now, we can add soul singer to that list. In his past, Childish Gambino has matched his half self-aware, half self-conscious rapping persona with wonderfully catchy hooks and brow-raising bars. So when the organ-like synths finally fade into nothingness on the album’s opening track, there is much to ponder.How does someone go from making some of the most quotable rap songs in recent years to sounding like (to a degree) the vocal hybrid of Steven Tyler and James Brown? The world may never know, but Glover discovered the secret. However, knowing Gambino’s past accomplishments, it isn’t implausible to assume he could pull something like “Awaken” off so elegantly — we just never saw this coming. The grooves on here are undeniably automatic, supersonic, and funky fresh (Hi, Ciara). Influences of retro funk and soul music are clear as Childish glides across each track, experimenting with new vocal patterns and techniques.The album’s most notable misstep is seven songs in with “California” due to its zany fluctuated singing style. Luckily, the track’s infectious bass lines do well to combat the inaudibility of its lyrics, but ultimately fail to make the song fully enjoyable. Also, despite “Awaken, My Love!” having a cemented centerpiece in “Redbone” (one of the year’s best), its longevity would benefit greatly from having at least one more hit record. But, if you ask me (which if you’ve read this far I assume you might), Glover simply may not have the time to make a universal masterpiece. He even admitted that making this album “wasn’t a lot of fun“. He’s got a lot on his mind nowadays, I’m sure. Regardless, it has been quite some time since an album has neither met nor exceeded its expectations; it broke them, rather. With this album, it is officially time for anyone who still might be sleeping on Childish Gambino’s talent to wake up and smell the roses.