Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino has always been a multi-faceted artist, putting out intriguing works across various genres and mediums. And yet, I sure as hell did not expect a funk record from the man back in 2016; nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d be more cautious in my assessment. But bring the funk he did, gloriously so – Awaken, My Love! was (and still is) a massively creative release even for his standards, and a bold step away from his hip hop roots.
In 2016, I was not a Childish Gambino fan. What I had heard of his rapping up until that point was ok, lots of punchlines and nothing overly thoughtful. My impression of his fandom was theater kids who liked Community and barely listened to hip-hop outside of Gambino and maybe J Cole, Kendrick, and Chance, The Rapper; good company to be sure, but he didn’t seem to fit. I didn’t get the appeal when there was so much great hip-hop coming out in the early ‘10s.
I worked at a bar at that time that had the misfortune of having a jukebox. At some point, between repeat plays of “Wagon Wheel” and Big Sean I started hearing “Me and Your Mama” out int the wild. The song immediately caught my ears as well as the iconic “Awaken, My Love!” cover art glowing from across the pine. ‘This has to be a fluke,‘ I thought to myself as I closed the bar and turned on some heavy metal to scare the stragglers, letting the song pass me by.
Not long after, the single that took over everything and made the whole world pay attention, “Redbone” dropped. My jaw dropped when I heard it. My impression of Donald Glover as an artist shifted entirely. He transcended into a modern-day version of the ol’ song-and-dance man of yore, and iconic figure of entertainment who was capable of anything. Yeah, his raps aren’t heady, but he can do it well enough, he can act wonderfully, but have you heard the smoothest falsetto since “Suit & Tie” to drop? Have you seen the performance on Jimmy Fallon? It will make you question your sexuality, bro.
The power of “Redbone” only grew. Nearly a year after its release it would be everywhere. Your mom had this song on her playlist. It is impossible not to enjoy unless you are so deeply cynical that you just don’t like music. Personally, the song became the soundtrack to a brief romance that happened during a time of relationship upheaval in my life. Drunk, stoned, and fully in rebound mode, the two of us spent our down time talking about and listening to music, MF DOOM, The Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac, but “Awaken, My Love!” grounded everything into a sexy, funky make out album.
I’ve read criticism of “Awaken…” that tends to focus on “California” as being too silly of a song, too shallow, too whimsical, too goofy, whatever. This is a terrible take.” California” is kind of a stupid song about vapid California things, but funk, as a genre, is full of goofiness. Bootsy Collins plays a star bass, after all. That playfulness should be on funk albums. Leave the somber gravitas to Radiohead. “California” also thematically displays the same kind of paranoia that broke the relationship in “Redbone” speaks to how ‘they’ get your money like in “Zombies”. If nothing else, it is a lyrical time capsule to remind us that Vine existed. There are far worse songs about California.
Anyway, “Awaken, My Love!” stands as an example of an artist taking a chance at something new, firing on all cylinders, and blowing it out of the water. Gambino hasn’t matched it to date, but even if he doesn’t, the feelings and nostalgia he captured on this album are largely universal and will be remembered for a long time.
Dylan Nicole Lawson
What makes Awaken, My Love! such an incredible work, in my opinion, is that it exhibits a huge range on Gambino’s dynamic. The album almost feels like an expansion pack, or even enhanced level of the kind of energy brought about on its predecessor, Kauai. Hitting funk vibes, featuring some vivid chants and vocalizations, and just texturing a wide variety of sounds overall, the album doesn’t have a single second without its depth. Childish Gambino had made plenty of a name for himself in previous work up to this point, and continues to, no doubt, but this album serves as a pinnacle point of experimentation as well as pure substance – sealing the deal that Gambino is, by all accounts, a true artist with waveform.
Personally, I think this was the album that really put Gambino more on my radar, especially after hearing songs like “Redbone” and “Boogieman”. I’ve always had a particular respect for him and his music, as it’s been ever clear he’s not afraid to delve into some hard-hitting subject matter as well as really go off the rails with songwriting, and I personally believe that the stranger and stranger your music gets, the better for it that can be. But Awaken, My Love! is exceptionally a pivotal point in Gambino’s discography that feels like Thanos completing the infinity gauntlet. That’s not to say I think Gambino’s an actual super villain per se, just that he must have certainly realized he’s too powerful for the rest of us to fully comprehend, dropping indisputable fire like this in the year 2016, which felt like a catalyst of sorts for many chaotic events that would follow after.
Funk music, r&b, jazz, and anything dipping into the like has always been among some of my favorite music, which throws many for a loop given I get regarded as a ‘metal dude’ a lot. While sure, that may check out from time to time, all throughout my life I’ve found that the aforementioned styles tend to have some of the finest attention to detail with song structure and alluring dynamics that just make you really ‘feel’ the music. It stops becoming merely a listening experience and something more that matches the rhythm of your heartbeat. All the greats of the genre have been masterful and spoken for at generating that element, but with this album, in my opinion Childish Gambino has done the same and taken it just a few steps further with esoteric concepts as well as emotional lyrical content. Also, yes, I am listening to the album in full as I type this – because why wouldn’t I? It’s been a minute since I have anyway…
Yeah, I know. There’s a lot of baggage to talk about with Donald Glover, AKA Childish Gambino. Most (of what I know) is inconsequential and not egregiously amoral to preclude me talking positively about his work, more personality quirks and hangups that I choose to not get into here. Really, the biggest slight worth bringing up here is the slight revisionism this album’s endured, with voices that have gotten louder over the years calling “Awaken, My Love!” (yes, the entire album title includes those quotation marks) baby’s first soul album, and that there’s so many other, better, more worthy albums and artists to get into when it comes to soul, r&b, funk, and just about any other genre Glover stations on this album. I see you, I feel you, you are valid – but we must not forget the importance of a good gateway album.
Glover under his Childish Gambino name was always known for hip-hop-flavored pop up to “Awaken, My Love!” and while I was a big fan of Because the Internet when it dropped because it did a lot of cool, interesting things, nothing else really gripped me up until that point, and I started trying way back with his Culdesac mixtape. He came off as tryhard at times, like a ‘nice guy’, so when “Awaken, My Love!” dropped, it was a much appreciated left turn. Yes, Lil Yachty wasn’t the first rapper to do a sonic 180 and he definitely wasn’t the last.
I have a deep soft spot for the sounds channeled on “Awaken, My Love!”. It was not my first soul, R&B, or funk album, but it did help me develop a deeper appreciation for it because it naturally led to me delving deeper into the classics that helped inform it, mainly more Parliament than I was already exposed to (already loved Mothership Connection because of how its title track was sampled and interpolated on Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride”). I can’t even imagine what it did to bona fide virgins to the sound, those who loved what they heard from Bino so much they went on a binge, digital crate-digging on their Spotify accounts to get more of it.
It’s clear as day that Gambino’s a big fan of this stuff, so he channeled it faithfully as hell with the help of frequent collaborator/musical BFF Ludwig Göransson along with a ton of guests like Gary Clark, Jr., Kari Faux, bLAck pARty, Ray Suen, and plenty more only made apparent in liner notes shout-outs. There’s slow jams, funky sociopolitical joints, and bombastic, electrifying cuts. “Awaken, My Love!” lacks weak songs, though I have my favorites.
Opener “Me and Your Mama” is such a grand, wonderful intro, maybe frontloading a lot of the high-flying action more than it should, but there’s plenty of similarly good moments in the juicy center. “Boogieman” is probably the most flagrant P-Funk/George Clinton worship on here; a song addressing racism and prejudice with a slightly cheeky air to the vocal delivery by all involved. The play on words with the title is great too.
And what about “Riot”? It’s a quick song with some similar psyched-out acid jazz stylings that made The Mars Volta stand well above their peers a couple decades ago. “Redbone” is a classic filled with longing and enough bass and funky synths/keys to staff a whole Soul Train episode. I imagine this is a guaranteed slammer at karaoke, but picking it means you are A) very confident if you aim to imitate Bino’s higher register, and B) ready to shut shit the fuck down for the night. Maybe breathe into a breathalyzer before you commit.
“California” is easy to hate, but I appreciate how much Gambino didn’t give a fuck, sounding like Harry Nilsson on the track. It’s fun and, appropriately, the sunniest song here. I love the flute in “Stand Tall”, a multi-part track that closes the album and centers eclectic instrumentation, a gentle choir, and Gambino’s own very capable voice in an epic, yet abrupt finish to what is, honestly, a beyond solid album in its genre(s).
I won’t lie, this was one of my favorite albums of 2016, a late entrant in the year as it came out in December. It was one of those albums that completely bombed your AOTY list if you were silly enough to solidify it in November. It was great then, and in relistening it now for writing this feature, it still holds up as a diverse, magical homage to classic soul and funk that still stands on its own. It feels like it’s clinging to a simpler time and as such has the ability to jettison you back to that time as well if only temporarily. For Childish Gambino, it’s surely to be a one-off outlier treat for listeners, and that’s fine – it means it’s that much more special.
So yes, go out and listen to Funkadelic, listen to Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross – honor and explore the greats! But you shouldn’t feel weird for churning the modern stuff as well, especially if it leads to you discovering a whole new musical world with decades of material to mine away at. That’s the beauty of music and connection with it. Enjoy your Childish Gambino, relish your Thundercat, and put that Silk Sonic on your cheek-clapping playlist.
A ‘Renaissance Man’ describes a person with a wide range of talents and expertise, Wikipedia told me. A jack of all trades, master of many, so to speak. Donald Glover and his alter ego Childish Gambino could easily be called the #1 pop culture renaissance man of our generation. Rising to fame as a writer on 30 Rock and later as the star of Community, Glover has become a key figure as an actor, producer, writer – and musician.
There are many reasons why I love Glover as an artist. Atlanta, a show Glover created, produced, and starred in, is easily one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. He is said to be the main inspiration for Miles Morales, the half-African-American, half-Puerto Rican Spider-Man who rivals Peter Parker in popularity. Hell, I’m even one of the few people who loves Solo: A Star Wars Story, including Glover’s portrayal of the charming gambler Lando Calrissian. So I guess you could say I’m a fan.
And I’m definitely a fan of Childish Gambino, especially the subject of this episode – Awaken, My Love!, his third album. After a few remixes and mixtapes, as well as his first two albums, Camp and Because The Internet, Awaken, My Love! has managed to catapult Glover from ‘actor who also makes music’ to the multi-talented artist who has won over the mainstream press and critics alike.
After a wild PR campaign, Awaken, My Love! dropped in December 2016, and those who had previously followed Glover’s run as Childish Gambino knew immediately that this was something different. In addition to having one of the catchiest songs of all time in “Redbone”, the album features a wide variety of influences and styles, with songs that dance between experimental moments and catchy hooks, a quality that has defined Donald Glover’s career like no other. There is definitely a sophisticated artistic approach to Awaken, My Love!, but it never sacrifices accessibility. Arguably as crucial to Childish Gambino‘s success as Glover himself is his longtime collaborator Ludwig Göransson, who has worked with Glover since Camp and now scores all the cool pop culture stuff like The Mandalorian theme, the latest Christopher Nolan films, and collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and Moses Sumney.
Awaken, My Love! is a contemporary pop culture essential, featuring ultra-talented people who live and breathe the artistry of the current pop culture pantheon – it’s undeniably catchy, just the right amount of daring, and will undoubtedly end up as a cult classic.