Donald Glover, perhaps more commonly known by his hip-hop alias Childish Gambino, has always been a formidable pop culture presence. From his two previous studio albums, Camp (2011) and Because The Internet (2013), to his successful stand-up career, to his stint as a celebrated writer on 30 Rock, to his impressive acting career ranging from Community to Spiderman, and the acclaimed new TV show Atlanta for which he is a writer, producer and star; is there nothing this 33-year-old California native can’t do?
This new release marks a change in Gambino’s musical journey, this album feels more emotional, more developed and generally more grown up than his previous releases. Perhaps this is marked by his recent journey into fatherhood, and with emotive tracks such as Baby Boy this certainly appears to be the case. “Awaken, My Love!” opens with Me And Your Mama, a strong number which shows that with this release Gambino has taken a step in a new direction. A move away from the more organic hip-hop and rap of his earlier works (and not down to a lack of talent in this field, Glover was applauded across the internet for his freestyle work) towards funkier, soul inspired, rock music. Perhaps this is because Gambino never truly seemed to fit into the rap crowd, he was always a little more experimental and didn’t quite have that edge to his music that his cohorts seem to have. Whatever the reason, it works; this album is a triumph.
Each track presents itself with rich lyrics, experimental vocals and sonically pleasing instrumentation. But it’s deeper than just the music, which is clearly taking influence from 70s psychedelic-funk. Gambino appears to be following in the footsteps of artists like Kendrick Lamar and turning to politics and current affairs for inspiration in his lyrics. Tracks such as Boogieman appear to be a commentary on life as a black man in America with lyrics like, “with a gun in your hand, I’m the boogieman. I’m gonna come and get you” and, “if he’s scared of me, how can we be free?” which seem to reference the Black Lives Matter movement and police shootings such as the tragic death of Tamir Rice. Shortly followed by the energetic and vivacious Riot which comes bursting through the album with Prince-esque instrumentation and bold lyrics: “Everyone just wants a better life / They tried to kill us / Love to say they feel us / But they won’t take my pride”. Similarly, Gambino appears to comment on modern society in his track Zombies: “We’re eating you for profit / There is no way to stop it …. / You will find there is no safe place to hide”. All of this coupled with the new funky sounds makes for a confident release at the end of a year of political turmoil. Gambino himself noted the connection between the politicised lyricism and 70s sound, noting in a recent interview that “There’s something about that 70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution”, and perhaps that’s exactly what he’s trying to do.
After the brief interlude from the more upbeat sounding California, with heavily auto-tuned vocals and what sounds like panpipes, the second half of the album moves back to more familiar Childish Gambino territory. For a rapper, this album consists of little-to-no rap or spoken word, but the vocals on Terrified and Baby Boy sound the most natural and reminiscent of Gambino’s earlier releases, perhaps a relief for some fans who may have been alienated by such an experimental release. Baby Boy, along with The Night Me And Your Mother Met, mark a mellow transition as the album begins to conclude and gently lead into Stand Tall, the most classically Gambino sounding track of the whole piece. This album boldly covers topics such as racism, modern society and new fatherhood with strong, experimental vocals and rich music and is undoubtedly Gambino’s best work to date.