Donald Glover is an actor, primarily known for his role on fan favourite Community. Donald Glover is a writer, starting on satirical series 30 Rock and now his own praised show, Atlanta. Donald Glover is a comedian who performs his own stand-up gigs and performed in sketch comedy for several years. And, oh, Donald Glover is also a musician, who has been concocting hip hop and rap mixtapes since 2008.
But then who is Childish Gambino?
On 2011’s Camp, Childish Gambino was the outsider, the nerdy guy in the rap scene who all the bigger, tougher rappers pushed around or underestimated, the self-pitying special snowflake, and the cool guy who thought he wasn’t cool by typical black standards. On 2013’s Because The Internet, Childish Gambino was the kid with too much ambition, the multi-talented artist who wanted to flash all his cards at once, and a man weighed down by the incessant need to make “art” from pop culture and timely social media references. But on 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!”, Childish Gambino has changed.
Last time we heard Gambino, he asked both himself and his audience, “I mean, where’s the line between Donnie G and Gambino?”. On “Awaken, My Love!”, the two seem to be meeting halfway.
The biggest discrepancy between “Awaken, My Love!” and Gambino‘s previous work is obviously the funk. His past material was always wrapped up in layers of often weak R&B synth tracks and clumsy rap rhymes, but his new release harks back to many psychedelic-funk bands of the ’70s, most notably Funkadelic. The genre appears to be his calling: production is crisp, instrumentation is thoughtful, and Gambino is a good singer, whose voice isn’t smooth enough to be boring or scratchy enough to be jarring. He pulls in and out with layers accordingly, vocals over electric guitar over percussion over bass over backup choirs, and so on.
But there are times when he falls short, and it’s a typical pitfall that Gambino has fell victim to in his past releases: trying too hard. To make “Awaken, My Love!” sound funk, specifically, and all the grace of his songs fall away when he begins to sound contrived rather than purposeful. For one, Funkadelic‘s influence is undeniable, to the point where Gambino is sometimes blatantly ripping them off. ‘Have Some Love’ and ‘Boogieman’, especially, are plucked straight from the 1971 epic Maggot Brain, and not in a good way. Gambino struggles to differentiate between inspiration and sheer copycat across this album, although he comes close to making some tracks his own, as is the case with ‘Me and Your Mama’, ‘Baby Boy’, and ‘Redbone’.
Examining those songs, that which makes the LP distinctively more interesting becomes clearer: it’s lyricism and content, and Childish Gambino‘s new vulnerability that comes with it. The nerdy, defensive, self-indulgent rapper is no more, and instead, Gambino seems willing to take a chance and open himself up to his fans.
Offerings on “Awaken, My Love!” are political, and not in a self-congratulatory way. Instead of distancing himself from his community, Gambino stands with them in tracks like ‘Boogieman’ and ‘Riot’, the former a criticism on the American police force and its failure to help its citizens, while the latter acts as a call-to-arms for African-American people to stand up for their rights. He creates community: “Boogieman, you’ve got to help us“, “They tried to kill us / Love to say they feel us“, or even the energetic call for “Everyone, everyone! / Get down, baby, get down, baby / Fly, fly, fly, high“.
Another recurring theme is fame and its complexities, and on this release, the concept isn’t tackled in a ‘fuck-the-haters’ way. Instead, Gambino confesses his anxiety and his fear at the industry and its people that surround him. ‘Zombies’ is a clear example of this, and using the supernatural creature as an analogy for those who latch on and live off of a celebrity’s accomplishments is a smart move. The haunting, horror movie-esque nature of the song makes it even more eerie and makes us fear Gambino‘s fame leeches, too.
But the theme that stands out above all is Gambino‘s introduction of family and love, specifically his son. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Gambino had had a son with his girlfriend, the couple incredibly private about any details. In “Awaken, My Love!”, fans can see that Gambino has gone from a player to something more akin to a family man. ‘Baby Boy’ highlights this by letting Gambino directly address his child and speak about both his happiness and his worry. His love and devotion pulses in the lines “Don’t take my baby boy / Don’t take my pride and joy“, while he also frets about the future of his strained relationship with the mother (“All the pain, all the tears / Many nights, many years / This love for me is fading“) and the fear of losing his son as a consequence. Finally, Gambino seems to be recognising, experiencing, and speaking about the multi-faceted nature of love.
So, this all begs the question: who is Childish Gambino?
Childish Gambino is a black man, railing against an oppressive system with his brothers and sisters across the country.
Childish Gambino is a celebrity who has grown weary to the point of fear in reaction to the dog-eat-dog world of the industries he participates in.
Childish Gambino is a lover, but also a father, who is overjoyed at this new familial connection and yet terrified of ever losing his main source of happiness.
Childish Gambino is Donald Glover.