Awaken, My Love! – Childish Gambino
By Tyler Mandell | Top Tracks: Redbone, Me and Your Mama, Stand Tall
It’s the most fun to write about albums that are revivals of a certain vintage genre or music scene, because you get to compare a lot between artists of completely different time periods. I had always wanted to write about “Awaken, My Love!” by Childish Gambino (rapper stage name of actor/comedian Donald Glover), an album that shows its influences in spades. This album is heavily indebted to 1970s psychedelic funk and soul, particularly the brand of it by music collective Parliament-Funkadelic which I’m a huge fan of. It’s also influenced by other artists in that scene, such as Sly and the Family Stone and even Jimi Hendrix to a lesser extent.
However, it’s different than other genre revival albums in the sense that it’s been accused of imitation and copying rather than building on its influences. When the album debuted in 2016, it received much acclaim but also several detractions for not having any innovative ideas of its own. A good comparison to this album would be An Evening with Silk Sonic from last year, a 1970s smooth soul tribute by Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. While that album was also heavily indebted to a similar music scene, it was more so a contemporary R&B album with a vintage soul/funk coat of paint on it, and it drew upon the previously established personalities of both artists to make it unique and fresh.
Childish Gambino wasn’t doing that with “Awaken, My Love!”, as the album doesn’t connect at all to his earlier album Because the Internet in any way, with a new personality and voice to go along with the album and no attempts to update P-Funk for the 2010s. And yet there’s points on the album that stand up to the original P-Funk era that it’s influenced by. The opener and lead single, “Me and Your Mama”, is breathtaking and kind of incredible as an apocalyptic prog-rock track. It opens the album with a misty, dreamy way and then ramps things up with these heavy psychedelic guitars. This album was also the first time Gambino was singing entirely on it as opposed to rapping, and while he can sound a bit rough and unexperienced on certain songs, he really gives it his all here. His performance is great and reminds me of Prince during his prime. The second single was the song “Redbone” which has already become a classic on its own. For good reason too, as it also settles easily alongside the P-Funk classics. It really sounds like a hit song from the 70s that happened to be made in 2016, with Gambino going into an unrecognizable upper register in his vocals that I still find impressive after multiple listens.
The first half of the album is more enjoyable with more of a focus on funk than anything else, but it’s also where I understand the problems critics had with it. Songs like “Have Some Love” and “Boogieman” sound great and are carried by an impeccable backing band, but they sound too eerily like Parliament-Funkadelic during their prime. Listening to those songs and P-Funk classics like “Hit It and Quit It” and “Can You Get to That” really show how little anything new Gambino is bringing to the table, even if those songs are quite enjoyable. The other songs in the first half are good but flawed, like “Zombies” which has a fun bluesy feel to it and wonderful use of harmonica and synths, but Gambino’s vocals show his inexperience and don’t work as well as they could. “Riot” is an energetic funk-rock track that has a great, driving feel to it but it’s too short to leave much of an impression.
Stylistically, I’d argue the second half comes more into its own with more of an emphasis on a slow burn feeling, though it doesn’t entirely work as well for me. Some of it depends on your taste for silky smooth soul ballads and while I enjoy some of it, it can also drag a lot at points. Fan favorite tracks like “Terrified” and “Baby Boy” are well produced and have a pleasant atmosphere, but they can seem to plod along too much for me to call for further listening. The low point of the album is the first track on the second half, “California”, which is utterly bizarre and off-putting. It’s a weird Caribbean pastiche with lyrics meant to be a parody of influencer culture and certain rap styles, but it’s completely out of place with the album and Gambino’s vocals are so aggressively strange that it ruins any potential enjoyment of the track, even if the song is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.
The last two songs really saved the album for me, with the beautiful instrumental “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” capturing a poignant atmosphere and mood without any lyrics, relying just on the song’s title for context. “Stand Tall”, the closer, wraps the album up quite neatly with its themes of fatherhood and has some of the best vocals on the record. It makes the entire album feel like a bold personal statement from Gambino with a satisfying conclusion. Yet when viewing the album in the context of 2022, it’s also disappointing that Gambino didn’t develop the sound and style he started on with this album and build on it to something original and unique. This is clearer when comparing this album to… whatever that 3.15.20 album was.
Still, while the album has its problems, it works quite well in what it’s trying to carry out. It captures the feel of classic psychedelic funk perfectly at times with wonderful production and album personnel. Every project that Childish Gambino (or Donald Glover himself) works on is always interesting due to his strong ambitions, even if he may not realize his potential or his limits at points. If anything, what Childish Gambino needs is consistency and a real focus to drive his ambitions, because I think he really could make a classic album under his belt if he truly had a sense of what he wanted from his music.