Donald Glover, professionally known as Childish Gambino, tries to branch out into new musical territory with his third full-length studio album “Awaken, My Love!”
Two tracks “Me and Your Mama” and “Redbone” were released in November to give fans a taste of what to expect from the album. The songs feature none of the rapping that Gambino has become known for. Instead, he borrows from the genres of rock, gospel and funk on the two teaser tracks.
The intro of “Me and Your Mama” features synthesizers that resemble the spacey sound of Flying Lotus before it cuts to a forceful verse sung over intense guitar riffs and drum fills that hark back to King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.”
The songs’ new soundscapes are formed by oddly-pitched vocals and textures that left expectations extremely high for the album. However, as fresh as the album may seem, “Awaken, My Love!” falls short in one major respect: its focus.
With each new track comes a reimagining of the album’s sound as they each borrow too much from their respective inspiration, “Boogieman” and “Stand Tall” being the chief offenders. With fundamental differences in composition, instrumentation and vocalization nearly putting each song into a different genre than the last, the album is held back from achieving any sort of cohesive tone or feeling.
That is not to say that the songs on this album are inherently bad or poorly made, but to listen to the album from start to finish will probably leave listeners confused, even those who weren’t expecting Gambino’s usual rapping. The greatest instance of this confusion is the transition between the sixth, seventh and eighth tracks on the album, “Redbone,” “California” and “Terrified.”
“Redbone” lulls listeners into a gentle groove with its downtempo beat and looping, modulated bassline. Instead of maintaining the mood of its predecessor, “California” takes listeners to an odd tropical land for two minutes where people seem to speak in autotuned verses that take some deciphering to comprehend. By the time listeners have adjusted to the playful instrumentation and Gambino’s modulated voice, they are pulled back into the eerie, dark world of the track “Terrified.”
It may have been Gambino’s intention to take listeners on some sort of expedition through his mind or on a journey of self-discovery with highs and lows throughout. “Awaken, My Love!” may even be a high-fidelity representation of that journey, but that doesn’t make it good listening by default.
There is also an abundance of social commentary throughout the album, much of which will be lost to listeners without closer inspection of the lyrics as it is often overshadowed by instrumentation. There is an extremely relatable message buried deep in the second verse of the song “Riot,” which is almost entirely unnoticeable.
Between choruses shouted over psychedelic soul, Gambino sings: “No good fighting. World we’re out of captains. Everyone just wants a better life.” However, this message is almost undetectable when put beneath the instrumentation.
He critiques police violence and the oppression of black people on the track “Boogieman” followed by people’s tendency to feed off of those around them who are successful on “Zombies.” However, both messages are lost amidst jarringly different music from the previous track that will have listeners more focused on trying to adjust to the new sound than enjoying it.
The potential for this album was tremendous, as displayed by “Redbone” and “Me and Your Mama” just a month prior. Those two songs being released individually one week apart from each other worked to their advantage, and it’s difficult not to wonder if the album as a whole would have benefitted from a similar format.
As an album, “Awaken, My Love!” is truly crippled by its own ambition. The best way to listen to it is not from start to finish, but instead, one song at a time. In order to truly absorb and comprehend everything that is unnecessarily crammed into each track, listeners should probably listen to each song two or three times and take a little time off before moving on to the next track.
If Gambino gave the ideas behind each song a bit more focus on musical and lyrical unity, the album would shine as bright as it could have. Every song is so different from the last that he could have tried to turn each type of music featured on “Awaken, My Love!” into its own album. Instead, each track is in debt to its inspiration, borrowing far too generously to distinguish their sounds as wholly unique.
On the closing track “Stand Tall,” Gambino emulates the sound of his contemporary Frank Ocean remarkably well, but it lacks his own personal twist. The final moments of the track feature a sustained note that is cut off before its end, and it perfectly summarizes the feeling of the album: underdeveloped and incomplete.