Childish Gambino surprises, stuns with funk sound in ‘“Awaken, My Love!”’

Childish Gambino "Awaken, My Love!" | Glassnote Records Grade: B+
Glassnote Records/Courtesy
Childish Gambino "Awaken, My Love!" | Glassnote Records
Grade: B+

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As perhaps hinted by the sound of his previous musical endeavor — 2014 EP Kauai — Childish Gambino seems to be moving on from the familiarity of hip-hop tradition. Instead, Gambino — known widely by his real name Donald Glover — is now dipping his feet into other genres of music; where Kauai explores pop sensibilities, his third studio album, “Awaken, My Love!”, looks for inspiration from funk and soul.

This isn’t entirely unprecedented, however, as the likes of Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak have all also made recent movements toward these styles. But what differentiates “Awaken, My Love!” from the others is that while they sparsely utilize traditional rapping verses in their albums, Gambino abandons the practice altogether. This removal may sound questionable to the avid fans of his first two studio albums, Camp and Because the Internet, but the lush and masterful instrumentations and the surprisingly strong and diverse vocals answer any doubts that listeners might have. In fact, this may just be Gambino’s best musical work to date.

“Awaken, My Love!” begins with the six-minute single, “Me and Your Mama,” which was released as the first single of the album earlier this year. The track is immaculately layered, with eerie synths pulsating in the background behind echoing electric guitar riffs, chorus-like chanting from an anonymous female singer and the powerful falsetto vocals from Gambino. As the song climaxes, Gambino wails: “Girl you really got a hold on me/So this isn’t just puppy love,” which at once works as both a declaration of his love and references “Ms. Jackson” by OutKast, whose influence on the album cannot be overlooked.

“Redbone,” the second single of “Awaken, My Love!”, further conjures ideas of OutKast from the otherworldly wah-wah guitar effects, pitched vocalizations and clean percussion that make it one of the albums sexiest tracks. Lyrically, “Redbone” embodies succinctly the ideas of social and political awareness that have proliferated in recent times with its catchy chorus: “But stay woke/Niggas creepin’/They gon’ find you/Gon’ catch you sleepin’,” leaving listeners with an important message that bolsters the power of the funk anthem.

OutKast isn’t the only inspiration within “Awaken, My Love!” either; Gambino channels the likes of Prince in “Redbone,” Michael Jackson in “Terrified” and Funkadelic in “Have Some Love” and “Baby Boy.” Despite the wide range of inspiration — both in terms of content and musicality — drawing from some of the most respected names both within the genre and the industry as a whole, Gambino still shines brightest during the most authentic and sincere moments of “Awaken, My Love!”.

He exemplifies this in one of the highlight tracks of the album, “Baby Boy,” which is perhaps composed in reference to Gambino’s recently born son. “Baby Boy” is quieter and subtler in production than the songs that appear earlier in the album. Soulful synth and keyboard melodies characterize the track and complement the earnest, pleading vocals of Glover, in which he details the tenuous relationship between father and mother and begs the latter not to “take him away.”

“Awaken, My Love!” is one of Gambino’s more cohesive and enjoyable works — it works to showcase both his versatility as a musician outside of the hip-hop genre and his growth as a more worldly artist. Unfortunately, for all of the inspiration that he found among other artists, it’s hard not to feel as though the album has lost a little bit of Gambino in the process. For a man with as many talents as Childish Gambino, however, a great funk album with some stunningly beautiful tracks seems to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Contact Josh Gu at [email protected].

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