Over the span of his career, Donald Glover has never shied away from using his Childish Gambino pseudonym to dip his toes into a wide array of sounds. However, it wasn’t until his most recent effort, this month’s “Awaken, My Love!”, that he jumped headfirst into those experimental urges.
Since entering the collective consciousness in 2010 (I’m aware there were releases prior to this, but for the purposes of this article, I Am Not a Rapper will be used as the starting point), Glover’s Childish Gambino project has been a haven for Glover to play with myriad of influences. From rapping over Grizzly Bear and Sleigh Bells on those first mixtapes, to the screaming guitars that made up much of the backbone of Culdesac, there was always an off-kilter angle evident from the very beginning.
That twinge of experimentation is something that traveled with Glover as he moved from the shadows of his early work to the foreground of the indie hip-hop scene. His first studio efforts, 2011’s EP and Camp, showed just that, utilizing a combination of analog instruments and vocal arrangements to differentiate themselves from a rising sea of sameness. 2013’s Because the Internet moved into the realm of strange ambiance, with a cacophony of swirling sounds creating a claustrophobic world within the record.
But while a shallow look into Glover’s musical career would show a tendency to draw from more unique sounds, a deeper dig reveals that that’s not entirely the case.
Up to this point in his career, Glover has never fully committed to a sound.
As stated before, Glover has appeared to be enthralled by the idea of branching out musically, but is constantly tethered back to reality by some “by the books” rapping.
While it’s less evident in his earlier work – Culdesac has a sheen of naivete that fits the record well and gives it a specific feeling. Camp shows a piece of work that strives to be something bigger but ultimately falls short, in part because of Glover’s intrinsic need to return to the sameness of his punchline flow.
Where this observation really rears its head is on Because the Internet. With its near performance art roll out, intricate packaging and overall mysteriousness, it was evident that Because the Internet was intended to be a cohesive statement – one that had a stringent purpose and definitive goal in mind. Though parts of the album are largely successful in that regard, the overarching concept of the album is undermined by the inclusion of straightforward rap songs. That’s not to knock the quality of those tracks – “Sweatpants” remains a shining moment of Glover’s staggering ability to craft fun, humorous, and impressive lines – but there is an air of missed opportunity that lingers over the album as a whole. The entire back half of the record is a strange trip of soundscapes weaving in and out that engulfs the listener. It sounds like an entirely different piece than the Worldstar-touting tracks that immediately preceded it. It’s almost as if Glover was hedging his bets, pushing back against the abrasive avant garde-ness with fun crowd pleasers. Hell, even his most recent project prior to 2016 saw the same sort of split, as the delightfully poppy Kauai EP was packaged alongside the mixtape STN MTN.
Again, that’s not to demean those songs, or even necessarily Glover’s decision to include them. It’s not hard to derive the concrete reasons behind the sound choices, but given Glover’s fairly obvious proclivity toward experimentation, it is enough to pose the question of why he would continue to hold back creatively.
Which brings us to 2016. After some time away from the spotlight, this was the year that Glover thrust himself back into our consciousness, reminding us of his genius with the outstanding genius of Atlanta, as well as earning roles in both the new Spider-Man and Star Wars films.
Re-entering the mainstream’s view, Glover again began an intricately strange roll out process for new music. With the release of a mysterious app, he invited fans to join him at Joshua Tree for a performance of his yet-to-be-announced new album. The near-spiritual event required attendees to surrender their electronic devices, seemingly as both a means of security for the new tracks and an optimistic tool to draw listeners closer to the music, but it didn’t take long for the buzz to begin.
“There’s not really any rapping”. “It’s weird”. “The range of influences is wild”.
With those seeds planted, my thoughts during the interim between the Joshua Tree and the album’s release were dominated by one simple question: would this album truly be a new sound for Glover, or would it be a half-baked attempt in the vein of Because the Internet?
Last week, we got our answer.
Who’s to say what spurred it on, but “Awaken, My Love!” is a whole-hearted dive into a specific sound, a dive that Glover has seemingly been hesitant to make up until this point. It is a powerful piece, and one that sees Glover fully embrace influences that have largely gone untouched in his discography, like the heavy grooves of funk colliding head on with the winding sprawl of psychedelic rock. Glover completely abandons rapping for the most part, instead stretching his vocals to the brim in every which way.
Granted, the album isn’t perfect. Some sections drag on due to a feeling of sameness, while the inclusion of “California” is a strange and likely unnecessary choice.
But that’s not the point.
The album’s biggest strength is its unwavering commitment to the artistic choices made. There is no hedging of bets on “Awaken, My Love!”. It is what it is, through and through: a creative triumph.