Awaken, My Love (released December 2, 2016)
A couple of days ago, I chatted with one of my dudes about “Old Kanye” vs “New Kanye,” and whether it’s unfair for fans to demand an artist revert to his or her old sound. Here’s a point I made that many fans don’t realize – typically, your entry point to an artist’s work is how you personally define their sound and it’s only natural that you want to hear MORE of that sound.
So if you fell in love with College Dropout-era Kanye, it’s likely that that’s the Kanye you’ll always hold near and dear. Likewise, if you came on board during the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy era, you’ll likely consider that Ye’s quintessential sound.
If you ask me, it’s a bit unreasonable to ask your favorite artist to time travel back to when YOU personally loved them most. It would be like friends you haven’t seen since middle school expecting you to talk about Tamagotchis and Beanie Babies all the time. Everyone should be allowed space to grow.
But I ain’t judging – I’m pretty guilty of this too.
When I heard the first single from Childish Gambino’s third album, Awaken, My Love!, my first reaction was this doesn’t sound like Gambino at all. I ain’t feeling it.
I don’t know why I was so surprised. Evolution is what Donald Glover does best.
All three of his musical projects are a drastic departure from the last – in 2011, Gambino introduced himself as a self-conscious freshmen on Camp; in 2013 he was the moody superstar burdened by fame on Because the Internet. And here, on Awaken, My Love, Gambino has basically become his parents. Having a kid will do that to you, I guess.
If you’re looking for quippy rap verses, go listen to Gambino’s old albums. Awaken, My Love is a soulful rock record, and it works way better than you’d expect.
Thanks to repeat listens, I’ve softened my stance a bit on psychedelically screechy “Me And Your Mama” but here’s the better news – while that track has gotten all the buzz, most of the remaining tracks here are easier to digest.
On the surface, Awaken, My Love simply sounds like Gambino dug through his parents’ dusty collection of 45s. The feel-good “Have Some Love” jujus all the way back to Woodstock and Gambino shamelessly bites George Clinton on “Boogieman.” But listen closely and you’ll catch some poignant social commentary.
“Boogieman” is more than a good time, it’s a smart take on racial profiling, where black bodies have been deemed as monstrous threats: “But in the bounds of your mind/We have done the crime” and later he asks “But if he’s scared of me/how can we be free?”
“Zombies” warns against those who “eat you for profit” while the frantic energy of “Riot” posits “they tried to kill us/Love to say they feel us/But they won’t take my pride.”
Gambino has long juggled rapping and singing, but let’s be real – he’s no Lutha in the booth. Thankfully, the album’s funk heavy production, and Gambino’s willingness to diversify his delivery, make up for any vocal deficits. Gambino slows down the tempo a bit on “Redbone” to adopt a scratchy falsetto that sounds like Prince recovering from strep. It works extremely well here and on “Terrified,” a haunting but addictive track that’s like the mutant love child of Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” and Janet Jackson’s “Anytime, Anyplace.”
The final third of the album is a reflection of Gambino’s new life as a parent – he channels Sly and the Family Stone to ponder his insecurities about parenthood on “Baby Boy” before sharing the advice he was given as a child by his own parents on “Stand Tall.” Much like Gambino’s sound over the years, that track’s production constantly shifts over the six-minute run time, evolving from minimalistic guitar licks to sound effects straight out of an 8-bit video game to jubilant Easter Sunday hand claps.
It’s easy to write off Awaken, My Love as a novelty record, but give Gambino credit for an admirable attempt at reinvention. While he’s done a solid job of imitating the greats, he hasn’t quite mastered their sound (which is probably why the light-hearted “California” veers too close to parody). But most tracks prove to be a welcome departure from current musical sounds.
Rap purists can turn up their noses at this record if they want – Gambino’s just here to tell HIS story, HIS way.
Viva la evolution.
Best tracks: “Terrified,” “Boogieman,” “Redbone”
3.5 stars out of 5