Donald Glover’s talents have not gone without being recognized.
I’d been a moderate fan of Donald Glover for several years. I appreciated him for his work as a writer for the first three seasons of the NBC sitcom 30 Rock, and as one of the stars of NBC’s adjacent sitcom Community.
My admiration for him elevated several notches with the first season of Atlanta. Taking on the task of being an executive producer, writer, star and partial director of the show proved to be an effective method for Glover, as the comedy-drama was well-received by many critics, as well as myself. It mastered the concept of creating humor without cramming punch lines into the script.
Despite my earlier fondness of Glover’s contribution to television, I’d never really been inclined to listen to his music. Bits and pieces of his discography would graze my eardrums from time to time, but I never made the point to give a deep listen.
I found Atlanta to be such an enchanting piece of artistry, that I decided that Glover’s latest album Awaken, My Love! deserved a spin.
Upon my second full listen, I came to the conclusion that it is just as enchanting as Atlanta, if not more.
Glover— or Childish Gambino, his musical alias— utilizes much of the 49-minute run time resurrecting the sound of psychedelic funk of four decades ago. This comes after having a prior catalogue of primarily Hip Hop, as well as a few dabbles with R&B.
But here, he completely abandons rapping and puts his pipes to use throughout.
The album opens with ‘Me and Your Mama,’ which eases you in with a soothing, almost heavenly melody for nearly a quarter of the track. A collection of vocal harmonies lace the melody with the lyrics ‘I’m in love when we are smokin’ that la-la-la-la-la’ eight times in succession, until electric guitar notes come crashing through the speakers at the 2:01 mark, as the beat transitions away from tranquility.
Riding in on the song’s sudden energy shift, Glover provides vocals fueled by passion early in the change-up.
This track serves as a perfect representation and preview of the varying degrees of sonic intensity the album provides throughout.
‘Boogieman’ lies on the higher end of the intensity spectrum. The funky track storms in with more group harmonizing on top of an authoritative percussion pattern. The sly lyrics highlight the point of view of the targeted victims of police brutality and the hypocrisy of their demonization, without feeling like a sociological anthem. However the lyrics ‘But if he’s scared of me, how can we be free?’ ooze a profound significance.
The way Glover contorts his voice into a cartoonish tone while singing may be the signature element of the song. Somehow he makes it work without it sounding gimmicky.
His animated vocals are also present in the subsequent ‘Zombies.’ His singing once again accentuates the vibe of the song. The vibe being less funky, and more ominous this time around.
Glover describes the zombie-esque nature of the people around him who seek to feed off of his fame and fortune. It’s a timeless rhetoric of the famous, but this track provides a creative illustration of it. Rapper, Kari Faux– who first gained attention with previous work with Glover– lends her voice to personify the metaphorical zombies on the chorus with a calm, hypnotic flow.
‘Redbone’ has been the most popular track of the project. It climbed to #48 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it Glover’s highest charted single to date. The soulful ballad offers a warm ambiance within the opening moments, with the sound of a soft, flavorful guitar melody paired with a series of gentle, silky synth chords.
While Glover pulls off a high-pitched vocal ability throughout the album, he delivers it on this song in particular in the most impressive fashion. He croons about a complex relationship with a love interest with some extra flair of texture to his falsetto. So much to the point, where many believed audio enhancements were conducted to his recorded vocals. Even after he confirmed that wasn’t the case, there were still doubts. His superb performance on The Tonight Show back in December laid the skepticism to rest.
The track allows time for an invigorating guitar solo to lead to the conclusion. Towards the end, the guitar is accompanied by a hollow cello banjo to create a synergetic fire and ice dynamic in audio form.
Three songs later, he reloads the scratchy falsetto onto ‘Baby Boy.’ He taps into his emotions and expresses the love he has for his infant son, and the fear he has of him being taken out of his life by his son’s mother due to his own mistakes. Glover’s palpable vulnerability is strongly felt over a bass line that hugs the beat and a sharp clarinet keyboard loop.
Immediately after comes ‘The Night me and Your Mama Met’ which is free of lyrics. Just three and a half minutes of instruments and background harmonizing, reminiscent of the opening track’s initial soothing and heavenly vibe. It also features another warping guitar solo that somehow finds a place along the easy-going pace of the song.
The album concludes with ‘Stand Tall,’ an uplifting track that has a hint of a gospel sound. Glover once again applies his son as the centerpiece of the subject, this time passing down to him the advice and wise words of his own parents through singing. Through three different musical segments, the song never stops feeling inspiring as Brent Jones and the Best Life Singers follow Glover’s lead in choir.
The intricate sequences of composition takes you on a journey as the clock winds down on the album. Punctuating the project is an abrupt ending, with Glover being cut off mid-vocal.
The swift closing is symbolic to the entire album’s nature of leaving you wanting more. Most of the tracks’ level of enjoyability exceed their duration. The project leaves space for you to crave more, which is a sign of maximum efficiency.
I never felt like Glover’s music would be bad, I just didn’t know what to expect from someone with a comedic background. Prior to now I figured music was probably like a hobby to him, and that he found a way to rap without being bad at it, but not great at it either. Or perhaps an extension of his comedy. I assumed the same about his singing.
But Awaken, My Love!, in its 11-track glory, serves as proof that Donald Glover is a true and pure musician, not just someone who happens to make music.
Led by co-executive producer Ludwig Göransson– who tackled the bulk of the instrumentalist work– Glover displays a firm grasp of musical comprehension. The production presents a rich and organic audibility, with minimal digital composition (which was a conscious production strategy by Göransson). It features roughly three dozen different instruments, several of which I’ve never even heard of. Many of them were also the instruments of choice of Parliment-Funkadelic in the ‘70s, which helps in the successful fusing of two eras and, and multiple genres of music.
The album was born out of Glover’s memory of his dad playing tons of Funkadelic and parallel musical acts of that era as a child. He introduced the catalogue to Göransson, who then did a crash course on the genre to assimilate the essence of it. The study paid off, as the duo accurately captured the iconic sound. The production’s clean authenticity and transparency is incomparable to most modern music on the mainstream radar.
Each instrument serves a purpose, and none of them feel the slightest bit unnecessary. There is a handful of musical interludes that are minutes long, and none of them feel excessive. The instrumentals are just as important as the singing and lyrics.
In addition to his production, Glover shows incredible range as the primary artist. He isn’t quite a natural singer, but he discovered a pathway to totally maximize his skills in that department, with only a small dose of programmed vocal enhancements here and there. Just a distorting voice filter, if anything. He implemented a diverse array of vocal versatility that feels three-dimensional.
If Glover’s career continues to reach greater heights from here, 2016 will be go down as the year where he solidified his spot as an elite all-around talent of the entertainment industry.
But maybe having produced, written, directed and starred in perhaps the best show, as well as produced, written and performed on perhaps the best album of such a memorable year is his peak at the age of 33.
And if that’s the case, that’s a damn good apex to have reached.