Notoriously known for his comedic charisma and kooky personality, Donald Glover is one super-popular individual. His tally of talents is indisputable, and he will likely enjoy a long, prosperous career in the entertainment industry. However, whilst his work as an actor is generally celebrated, Glover’s musical career hasn’t seen the same rate of success. Childish Gambino is popular, no question, but his records have hardly hit universal acclaim.
“Awaken, My Love!” is a considerable change of direction, shifting his focus from hip-hop to funk and soul, and the transformation is as jarring as it is impressive. The album’s aesthetic is gorgeous, but the overall sound simply cannot escape Gambino’s eccentricity. For all of its positives, Awaken is utterly impossible to take seriously. It’s vibrant, colourful, and spectacularly produced, but seriously lacking in enduring substance. I don’t doubt Gambino’s intentions: I’m sure he and Ludwig Göransson (Glover’s long-time collaborator) strived to create a genuine soul album, and they do admittedly hit a lot of the right notes on a technical level.
Unfortunately, Awaken sounds like a meme that has come to life. It’s one giant gimmick. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a struggle to take seriously if it actually contained more than a handful of proper songs. The record attempts to push boundaries of form and structure, without actually proposing an alternative to the norm. Some cuts, such as “Terrified”, threaten to be good songs, before failing to develop on an initial interesting idea and halting any sense of progression.
“Redbone”, far and away the best song here, shows that having structural limitations can go a long way, yet is inexplicably followed by “California”, which has a strong lead in the race for ‘Most Irritating Track of 2016.’ The amount of vocal effects is totally obnoxious, and it winds up being a massive disservice to Gambino as a singer. These fatal flaws ultimately outdo all the good work on show here. Childish Gambino may well be attempting to mature as an artist, but if “Awaken, My Love!” is anything to go by, his temperament is better suited to hip-hop.
6 out of 10
“Awaken, My Love!” alternates between being enjoyable and a massive windup. Childish Gambino, I’m told, has trod new musical ground with this release, and in terms of instrumentation and production I like it. The album boasts a lush, colourful sound, drawing from elements of funk and soul to create an impressively modern vibe. Structure and delivery is where it all falls down. Even at its best the album is like watching Hamlet performed by Kermit the Frog.
There’s a horrible, looming silliness to everything Donald Glover does. Although he has a terrific voice (something I had to learn after listening to the album), he can’t seem to help himself when it comes to daft effects. The constipated auto-tune of goofball ditty “California” is the obvious offender, but his vocals are obscured across the album. Not to mention the lax song structures. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another. The instrumental on “Redbone” is gorgeous — one of my favourites of the year — and he mars it with that stupid chipmunk effect 2016 has been rife with. “Zombies”, which isn’t even all that catchy, was a breath of fresh air merely by virtue of not hiding behind gimmicks and frivolous structure.
All in all, there’s no getting past it; as sweet as the general sound is, all too often “Awaken, My Love!” leaves me bored and/or irritated. I don’t have time to enjoy things ironically.
6 out of 10
“Awaken, My Love!” has grown on me for sure, but I’m certainly not fawning over it. What I’ve become most attached to are the instrumentals: oozing funk and soul, they certainly fall in line with one of my preferred trends of this year, drawing from influences of decades past while also adding in modern day synths and effects to freshen the sound. Single “Redbone” and opener “Me and Your Mama” in particular have warm, indulgent instrumental arrangements that have kept me coming back in isolation. The first half of the tracklist generally does well in this respect, while the second half feels slightly sparser, concentrating more on the vocals.
Unfortunately for me, I don’t quite get the vocals. Having proven that he has a voice that doesn’t need to be covered up, augmented or assisted, Awaken proceeds to do all of the above, whether that be drowning the vocals out (see “Have Some Love”), pitch shifting vocals to chipmunk levels (see “Redbone”), or dumping auto-tune all over the vocals to sound closer to grunts of exertion than actual lyrics (see “California”). It doesn’t feel like these alterations add to the vocals in any way, and it puzzles me because he’s already shown he can do without them. “California” really is the turning point for me, and whatever excuse is used (I’ve seen ‘it’s a parody of mumble rap,’ ‘it’s experimentation’ and ‘he’s having fun with his music’ thus far), the bottom line is that it doesn’t work for me. From there on, I begin to suffer fatigue, so tracks like “Stand Tall” probably don’t stand a fair chance.
What frustrates me further is the context around this album: with Childish Gambino affirming that the album wasn’t a lot of fun to make, it’s clear he wants to be taken more seriously, but despite all of its good moments, Awaken could never be described as a serious album. This is only demonstrated further by tracks like “California” and “Zombies”. I will be returning to it in part (“Redbone” has grown to be somewhat of an earworm, and “Me and Your Mama” continues to be an enjoyable listen) but as a whole, I don’t think it’ll hang around long.
7 out of 10