It was probably the release of Redbone that made us all sit up and take notice of Childish Gambino’s new direction. Taken from an album with no features and virtually no rapping, ‘Redbone’ was representative of the album’s admirably sharp left turn, as well as concrete proof Donald Glover’s rap days were, for now at least, over. It also promised us that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. For as popular as Glover became under his Childish Gambino pseudonym, there was a clear ceiling on how far up the totem pole he could ascend. Any rapper throwing out bars like “Half-Thai thickie, all she wanna do is Bangkok” after an album and six mixtapes probably didn’t have the critical currency to be much more than well-liked. A shift in sound and pivot a towards artistry will undeniably serve Donald Glover well and the release of Redbone, the second single from his latest venture, will mark the moment we took this shift seriously.
Beyond just that though, Redbone will stand as the perfect microcosm of why Awaken, My Love is likely to be so divisive and hotly debated. On the surface, it is an excellent song. Glover’s unconventionally filtered vocals pitched upwards are a masterstroke. The chorus is instantly memorable and Ludwig Görannson’s production favourably evokes Kevin Parker as the track roves into a psychedelic rock-infused instrumental towards the end. It’s the kind of well-rounded, pop friendly track that straddles accessibility and creativity as well as it can be done.
On the other hand, digging even slightly underneath the surface brings to light issues that will justifiably turn some away from ‘Redbone’ and Awaken, My Love as a whole. ‘Redbone’ borrows generous influence from Bootsy Collins’ I’d Rather Be With You, a staple classic of the Parliament-Funkadelic era, and comes across closer to a rehash than an appropriately distinct evolution. From the melody to the whomping instrumental to the pitch, the similarities are uncanny. It’s not malicious enough to warrant any charges of plagiarism, but it’s enough to rob ‘Redbone’ of feeling unique, fresh and like a true original piece of work.
A similar sentiment dogs nearly half of the album: witty wordplay can’t get around ‘Boogieman’ riffing the concept and structure of K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s I’m Your Boogie Man, Have Some Time is fun, but sounds like a cover of Can You Get To That by Funkadelic and even the campy Zombies adopts the chords of Kavinsky’s Nightcall, a song Gambino already flipped on 2012’s Royalty standout RIP.
In the face of such a conflict, fans of the project will go one way and those who don’t enjoy the album will probably go the other. Some will view Awaken as loving homage, others will view it as an ill-fated attempt to replicate the inimitable heroes of funk. Childish Gambino’s PHAROS live event will either be remembered as an artistic statement for the ages, or the space-age theme and flamboyant costumes will be deemed mimicry of George Clinton’s P-Funk Mothership. Either the project’s Maggot Brain inspired cover of Awaken is a nice tribute to Funkadelic or it’s the embodiment of the album’s fatal flaw. Music criticism is inherently subjective, but that sentiment is amplified on a project like Awaken where most of the disagreement just seems to run to the core. A sound will either sound good to someone, or it won’t. A song will either sound too derivative of another, or it won’t.
There are more defined highs and lows within the album, though. The twinkling opening Me and Your Mama is one of the best introductory tracks of the past decade regardless of which side of the divide one sits. Coated in a distinctly P-Funk synth, Me and Your Mama evolves over its six-minutes from a cautious build to a thrashing, frolocking guitar riff. A gorgeous rock-tinged epic,Me and Your Mama impressed as a lead single and sounds even better at the top end of a full-length project. Each listen enlivens something fresh about the song, be it Glover’s guttural howl that James Brown would be proud of, the acoustic guitar that washes through or the choir, which attaches an important sense of grandeur to Awaken, My Love from the very outset.
Whether one finds the production innovative or a nostalgia retread, the instruments on Awaken come across well. Between the work of Passion Pit touring guitarist Ray Suen and blues maestro Gary Clark Jr., who stops by for a scene-stealing solo on The Night Me and Your Mama Met, the album is loaded with complicated, memorable guitar riffs. Riot is a crashing, hip-moving head-spinner that sees Gambino at his loosest. At these points, Awaken teases its potential to perfectly balance the icons Gambino is lovingly saluting with interesting experimentation.
However, undermining those moments of unbridled glory are the misfires, typified by California, which skids closer to Harry Nilsson than any contemporary track probably ever should. A writhing, quirky shot at reggae, California is spearheaded by warbled, autotuned-flaked vocals, and feels completely detached from anything else on the album. Awaken does a superb job of feeling meaningful all the way through and has an incredibly consistent, rich atmosphere advanced on each song until California. Throw out any picture the album paints: nightmarish, starry, hazy, trippy. Whatever mood the album paints on the preceding six tracks, the woodwind-heavy California feels like distinctively out-of-place, spinning around Vine references whilst the rest of the album is concerned with a social revolution.
Thankfully, the follow-up Terrified does an excellent job at recovering from the stumble of California with one of the most complete, original songs on the album. It’s a clever track that does well to circle back to earlier songs from the album, which gives the package a nice cohesive feeling to it. Terrified also brings forth some of the best vocal work found on the project as Gambino’s echoey vocals sob and bob favourably reminiscent of an artist like Autre Ne Veut. The song highlights Donald Glover’s wealth of charisma that has turned many corny bars clever during his rap career. It serves him well on Awaken, too, as he rescues lines that are ripe for ridicule and makes them sound compelling (“Please don’t find me rude/But I don’t eat fast food/So run to me” springs to mind).
Much like it begins, the closing track on Awaken manages to transcend the issues that mire the bulk of the album. Stand Tall is the most uninhibited Donald Glover sounds on the record and it strikes with marvelous clarity. It’s astounding that the rapper who made an actual song called Turd in the Oven has grown into an artist who can write music this great.
What’s most welcome on ‘Stand Tall’ is how distinctly new it is. So much of the album feels back to the future almost to its detriment, occupying the strange place of being totally unique to any album released in 2016 and startlingly similar to many released forty years back. That makes the project in some senses refreshing and in other ways underwhelming. It’s cool to hear a take on Funkadelic by a contemporary artist, but the work feels predictably flat when held up against the outlandish innovators of the genre. Stall Tall breaks free of these trappings in a way that’s not common enough on Awaken, looking forward whilst appropriately dashing in elements of the past.
Awaken, My Love doesn’t necessarily hit all the right notes, but the sheer audacity to take on an experiment so bold represents maturity, talent and a deep appreciation for the source material that one cannot help but respect. George Clinton and Funkadelic are perhaps the toughest act in music to follow and whilst Childish Gambino doesn’t come within punching distance of matching them, he comes a lot closer than most contemporary artists probably could, if they even dared to try.