Perhaps the biggest preconceived risk attached to Awaken, My Love! was Childish Gambino’s commendable rap lyricism giving way to the uncompromising stench of grooved-out funk. The first single that preceded Awaken, ‘Me and Your Mama’, now arguably Gambino’s seminal track, stunned fans with an emotionally wrought, carnal vocal performance. His last musical body of work, 2014 EP Kauia, hinted at a complete departure from rap, dressing up a summer romance in a pleasing pop outfit. But surely, even after his revealing set at Pharos last September, few could have predicted a migration as severe as this.
However, anyone claiming that Awaken is pretention on the part of Gambino is sorely mistaken; like so many of his endeavours, this musical evolution is pulled off with precision and earnestness. On ‘Boogieman’, Gambino channels an adamant feverishness akin to Rare Earth and George Clinton and with ‘Riot’, the composition fizzes with psychedelic vivacity. Similarly to ‘Me and Your Mama’, Gambino is at his best on Awaken when the production matches the bombast of his persona or when his astounding vocal range is left unmodified as it is on the arresting ‘Terrified’.
Despite the research Gambino puts into his new semblance, his musical persona of old still shines through on a number of occasions. On ‘Zombies’, Gambino weaves a meandering tale of culture vulturism with an unsettlingly astringent vocal. ‘They can smell your money/And they want your soul’, he warns, as Donald Glover inevitably surfaces once more. And over the sunny tones of a guitar line and a kitschy windpipe on ‘California’, Gambino can’t resist some savvy, Camp-era wordplay: ‘You keep losing your mind/How you want to loop this shit but looking like a vine’. The Glover mannerisms continue to cross over on the cosmic slow jam ‘Redbone’. Even amidst a high-pitched Prince-esque growl, social awareness is rampant in Gambino’s cries of ‘Stay woke!’, mirroring his Atlanta character Earn Marks.
Gambino’s imprint on the record will be a redeeming quality for fanatics disappointed by the lack of rap on Awaken. But for all of its pleasing moments, (and there are plenty of them) it’s often hard to ignore the obviousness and lack of originality in the funk influences. Overtly jealous critics will probably be quick to highlight an unhealthy inflation of Glover/Gambino’s ego too, especially with the adventurousness that he approaches Awaken with. Realistically, Awaken has its faults- the finale ‘Stand Tall’ outstays its welcome. Its incongruity could see it easily mistaken for three separate, competing tracks, all overlapping messily. But the album is also a huge transformation for Gambino which needs to be taken into consideration. Only time will tell as to whether this transition will work in the long run. But with this funk-inspired project in its embryonic stage, Awaken proves to be a promising addition to Donald Glover’s CV.
Images courtesy of Rolling Stone and Genius