No matter how many think pieces have been written, we don’t quite know who Donald Glover is. And even with all of them waiting in the wings, I don’t think we’re going to get a clear answer. And, thank God, because it has been a joy watching him answer that question for himself. From his early success as a prototype-YouTube celebrity to his hard earned career as a musician, Donald Glover is, in many ways, the promise of the internet generation – documentation of growth through experimentation. We knew his work on 30 Rock and Community pointed towards next level but did we really know he had Atlanta in him? I mean, sure, some of us saw the potential for greatness in Culdesac but were still blown away when he dropped Because of the Internet. And that right there is the reason his newest record is such a fantastic slap in the face – we could never have seen this coming. As Childish Gambino, Glover has gone from dorm room, indie-band sampling hipster rapper, over stuffing each line with too clever similes and sarcastic charm, to a meticulous curator of post-modern existential hip-hop, questioning the construction of his personality while locking himself away from his own party. And then, for Awaken, My Love!, it seems he just decided to build a space ship and look for the answers elsewhere.
Awaken, My Love! is a trip. It is a hyper color waking dream wherein you are lifted to the heavens on the back of bass notes and a choir of ancestors. It is the work of a child’s imagination where George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic are the cosmic warriors of their very own Saturday morning cartoon show. It is psilocybin breakfast cereal to face yet another day of Trump’s America and arguing the horrifyingly simple fact that black lives do in fact matter. It is funk to shake off our cultural malaise, it is soul to crack the shell of our clinical cynicism, it is psychedelia to distract us from our endless distractions, and it is easily one of the most hypnotizing albums this year.
This is certainly not the rap album we were all expecting and there will be some disillusionment around that fact. It’s understandable, of course – Because of the Internet was a near masterpiece and deserved to be placed next to Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City for a Grammy nod. But rap just isn’t where Childish found himself this time around and, for a guy who can go from Magic Mike XXL to Atlanta, maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his trajectory. He might claim that he doesn’t have a plan when it comes to his career but that’s just fine. He has what it truly takes: an apparently endless reserve of passion.
This album is an explosion of unbridled creativity. A work of such obvious dedication that even if you remain disillusioned about its direction you can’t help but get caught up in it. Hell, you might not even like it but it is the sort of album you have to respect – not simply because he switched it up on us but because he has obviously poured himself into every bit of its construction. It is a truly brave exercise in going for it. What is it, exactly? A lot of loving nostalgia for revolutionary funk, an earnest desire to be socially woke, and a whole lot of spiritual catharsis.
First introduced via possibly the most millennial release party imaginable – a high concept, three day desert concert called Pharos (the lighthouse, not the rulers), promoted via an app, complete with a virtual reality element and an exceedingly well maintained embargo – Awake, My Love! was an enthralling mystery from its inception and, now that it’s been released, an engaging enigma. But this album is more than yet another twist on standard roll out models, it is the evolution of an artist who just desperately wants to keep digging deeper within himself.
An album seemingly dedicated to the contemplation of presence, the record covers everything from social concerns to critical success and especially Glover’s own newly minted fatherhood. But these topics aren’t always covered with focus, or clarity, with themes ebbing, flowing, and overlapping each other. One can imagine Glover in the studio just thinking about all of it and what it means for the world, the country, for his family and friends, and for his child and on back up again to the universe. Nothing is separate, all of us are in this together, and Awake, My Love! is Gambino’s plea for us to get our shit together and a prayer to the cosmos to help us out.
Musically, it is just as deliciously ornate as Because of the Internet where Glover’s obsession as a curator of emotional space really became evident. In fact, if there were any hint of this album previously, it would be found on Internet’s trippy standout “Flight of the Navigator.” Much like that song, this album wanders through lush playgrounds of spacey texture and pushes Gambino’s resume beyond serious rapper and on into mystical shaman territory. Here, Gambino isn’t simply imitating George or Sly but he is certainly invoking the same spirits. From the peace loving jam of “Have Some Love” to the weird-ass strut of “California,” Gambino deftly covers the honesty and the absurdity of a genre that always knew how to at once take social ills seriously and still invoke UFOs.
I would say the true power of the album, however, lies in how he ties it all up with what is as much a lullaby to his child as it is God singing to his creation. As an album closer, “Stand Tall” is the perfection encapsulation of everything that came before it. A song of earnest, if simple, encouragement to just keep pushing forward, proud and focused, it is as much of a theme song for Donald Glover as it is his offering for the world at large.
In this album, Gambino is officially entering into the realm of current spiritually conscious black music alongside the like of Kendrick Lamar and Solange. People might’ve still been looking for the joke in Because of the Internet somewhere between the screenplay and the avant-garde short film companion pieces, but Awake, My Love! is Glover’s most confident declaration yet. He isn’t simply trying to get a laugh or distract us with his wit – he’s trying to do what all earnest artists do: help.
I’m not sure if this is so much of an album review as it is an exclamation of excitement. I’ve been eager to see where Gambino might find himself ever since he remixed Sufjan into club music and proudly proclaimed he didn’t talk. Donald Glover as an artist – a comedian, a writer, an actor, and a musician – has been many things thus far but, as much as I’ve enjoyed his past work, it’s so damn fun to watch him truly perfect his craft. He hasn’t slowed down once and between Atlanta and Awake, it is obvious that his dedication has paid off. You might not like this new direction but I can’t imagine not being excited to take the journey with him.
Related aside I couldn’t quite find a place for in the article: that album art is one of the most beautifully engaging covers I’ve ever seen. I cannot stop staring at it. Nor can I stop jamming out to this song.