Donald Glover was a hilarious character as Troy on “Community.” The nerdy but affable role fit nicely with Glover’s unusual rap alias, Childish Gambino, the first few years of which (2009-2013) were characterized by name-dropping celebrities, clever but humorous wordplay, and an exaggerated arrogance.
“Community” went downhill fast when Glover abruptly reduced his appearances in the fifth season and left for the sixth to focus on his rap career, as well as the creation of a new TV show FX hired him to write, produce, and star in, “Atlanta.” When in 2015 he announced on the “Today Show,” “I feel like Childish Gambino is a period that should come to a close,” I expected that we were about to witness “Community” part two — in which Glover tires of rapping and abruptly stops to work on producing music, leaving his fans bewildered and a little disappointed.
Instead, he fired back with “Awaken, My Love,” a stylistic about-face from an artist who chanted “I do not talk, I am just a rapper” on his early mixtapes to the point where he was clearly insecure about his status as one. He doesn’t talk, but he certainly doesn’t rap either; the entire album is a tribute to 1970’s funk, with Gambino’s singing voice front and center stage.
The album is a disappointing plot twist in a year of incredible achievements for Donald Glover. “Atlanta” received critical acclaim, according to review-aggregating website Metacritic. Glover himself received an audition for the role of Spiderman in the upcoming Spiderman movie — a role previously slighted to him in 2012’s “The Amazing Spiderman,” despite the passionate #donald4spiderman campaign.
More excitingly, he has been cast as the young Lando in the newest Star Wars film. Despite expressing depression in interviews and in some of his music, Glover is doing some very cool things and getting recognized for doing them well.
Keep that in mind, because “Awaken, My Love” witnesses Childish Gambino abandoning the wit that made his lyrics so entertaining (and his forays into tweenage nihilism tolerable) for a vapid experimental persona. On the first song, “Me and Your Mama,” he romantically tells the girl of his affection “Oh, this ain’t no bullshit / I really love you, girl.” Poetry.
It wouldn’t be so disappointing except “Me and Your Mama” is six minutes of gorgeous production and glorious background vocal harmonies: Glover’s weak lyrical and mediocre screech-infested vocal contributions aren’t strong enough to be more than distractions. Gambino wrote either entertaining or insightful lyrics (he’s always struggled to do both at the same time) as a rapper, yet here he writes neither.
This applies to most of the rest of the album. We’ve known Gambino could sing pretty well since his 2010 mixtape “Culdesac,” but he faces the same problems now as he did then: his vocal ambition exceeds his vocal talent.
“Have Some Love” might have sounded great as a Parliament-Funkadelic track, but Gambino is not George Clinton in the 1970’s, so it sounds rehashed instead. “Riot” samples Funkadelic and has a chorus of cringe-inducing screaming that Sly and the Family Stone could have pulled off; Gambino doesn’t.
“Baby Boy” is an attempt at crooning like a combination of Nina Simone and Erykah Badu, but it just sounds weird coming from Gambino. Again, the production for all of these tracks is consistently fantastic, but Gambino’s vocals and lyrics aren’t impressive.
My point isn’t that Gambino isn’t as good as the greatest singers and musicians of the past century; it’s that Gambino is an imperfect vessel for their legacy. There are certainly some strong moments: Gambino more successfully embodies Funkadelic on “Boogieman”; he sings pretty falsetto over the slow-groove “Redbone”; his voice sounds pleasantly Jamaican on the upbeat “California”; and he preaches positivity in an octave more within his vocal range on “Stand Tall,” a nice change of pace from his perennial depression. It’s hit or miss, but he deserves some credit for singing most tracks without distortion, meaning he manipulated his voice in some really organic and interesting ways.
Yet despite some solid tracks, in order to take up that mantle he sacrificed the clever writing that made him unique in the first place. He hasn’t quite proven to be uniquely talented in other ways (musically, of course. He is a uniquely talented actor, writer, and comedian). While “Awaken, My Love” assures us that the period of Childish Gambino has not yet come to an end, the Childish Gambino that Donald Glover has decided to become is different than the one we know and love.
There is potential for this Childish Gambino to be better. Glover has always prided himself on being involved in his own production, and he is credited for writing every track alongside longtime collaborator Ludwig Göransson.
If he can rediscover the wit and character that initially made the Childish Gambino project so interesting — as well as accept the limits of his vocal range and truly master his voice — then the foundation of solid production could help him build to new heights, musically.
He could also reach new heights lyrically, as he has started to in his more recent work. “Because the Internet,” “STN MTN,” and “Kauai” are all introspective concept albums that address Glover’s depression, insecurity, and confusion regarding our rapidly-changing world.
The biggest failure of “Because the Internet” was Gambino’s inability to stay on topic for more than four bars in any given track; the biggest failure of “Awaken, my Love” is that he hardly says more than four bars with real meaning in any given track.
By finding the happy medium that we got a glimpse of on “Kauai” and further exploring the complex realities he faces with his new style, Childish Gambino could get through his musical growing pains and grow up.