Childish Gambino’s third studio album represents biggest musical risk to date

Donald Glover has always been difficult to pin down. From his stand-up comedy to his major role on the television show Community and his latest work producing and starring in his partially autobiographical television show Atlanta, Glover has spread his reach across all corners of pop culture. Glover’s forays into the world of music under the stage name of Childish Gambino only add to this chameleon mystique. On his newest album “Awaken, My Love!” Gambino sheds his brash rapper persona once and for all, instead paying homage to psychedelic soul and funk. The album, released on Dec. 2, represents Gambino’s biggest musical risk to date and pays dividends over soaring guitar riffs and Gambino’s funk falsetto. As a rapper, Gambino is usually all style and no substance, crafting flows and wordplay without an emotional center to hone in all of his energy. He garnered criticism for his ham-fisted punchlines and lack of direction in his 2011 freshman-outing Camp and then again in 2013’s Because the Internet, ping-ponging between witty lyrics and bon mots like “Yeah, you got some silverware/but really, are you eating, though?” However, it was Gambino’s singing on these albums that granted him praise from critics, with Because the Internet’s “III. Telegraph Ave.” and “III. Urn,” getting special recognition among the album’s tracks. This may explain why Gambino has abandoned rap entirely for “Awaken, My Love!”

Instead, he croons across 11 songs, showing an impressive range for someone better known for flows than high notes and showing off impressive knowledge of the 1970’s funk greats. The stand-out track on the album is its first single, “Me and Your Mama.” There is a grandness to the song’s production, with the tinkling notes of a music box sliding into a dirty electric guitar riff and the rapture of a gospel choir. “This is the end of us!” Gambino wails through the wall of sound, striking a powerful chord that resonates with the listener in a way that a lot of his music fails to do. Through the haze, Gambino lures his audience into his pain and with it sets up the rest of the album’s dreamy mood. The album’s production aids greatly to maintaining that emotional resonance with the listener.

Gambino takes pages from the playbooks of psychedelic funk and soul with tracks like “Redbone,” bringing the slow jam into the modern era with measured drums and the careful interspersing of piano notes. “Boogieman” modulates Gambino’s voice into a ghostly shriek as he melds with tambourines and cosmic guitars, while “Have Some Love” utilizes a chorus of voices to echo the call and response featured in 1960s and 1970s rock. Ghostly moans, claps and snaps are featured throughout the album to further recall music from those eras. One of the weakest points of the album—strangely enough for Gambino—is the lyricism. Instead of puns, his biggest indulgence on “Awaken, My Love!” is his lyrical vagueness and penchant for cliches.

The message of weaker songs like “Zombies,” for instance, is undercut by the lack of lyrical focus. A jam about people who leech off Gambino’s fame and money, “Zombies” is bogged down with cheesy and heavy-handed wordplay. “All I see is zombies,” sings Gambino, explaining that “they can smell your money/and they want your soul,” as if it were unclear to the listener. This effect is doubled when a chorus of feminine voices chimes in behind him: “We’re eating you for profit/there’s just no way to stop it.” Other songs also suffer from this issue, but none the more blatant than the weakest song on the album, “California.” “She wants to move to California,” Gambino sings, “She must have … lost her mind.” The sparse song is not helped by its complete sonic dissonance from the rest of the album, moving away from cosmic funk and into a breezy riff that recalls Caribbean sunsets more than Sly and the Family Stone.

Gambino’s fake patois accent also does little for the song. Though “Awaken, My Love!” suffers lyrically in places, Gambino’s continued push to grow and expand his musical horizon is something that pays off throughout the album. While it is currently unclear whether Gambino has quit rapping forever or has merely taken a short sabbatical from the game, his latest effort stands as a testament to his creativity and his refusal to fit under one simple label. Like with his comedy and television career, Glover deftly defies definition and it will be interesting to see what hat he will try on next.