It is hard to say whether it was always a game of chess, but if it were, Childish Gambino, a.k.a. Donald Glover, had the game plan all along. How does one go from being known as a comedian, a writer on 30 Rock, and an actor on Community to a multifaceted star in the truest sense? Take a hiatus from comedy to focus on music, appear in legitimate dramas, write a hit TV show about music, and then drop an album with relatively little rapping, instead showing flashes of Prince in the year of his death. It’s hard to tell whether the man who went on multiple late-night talk shows to tell the world his name was Dong Lover wanted to be taken seriously, but “Awaken, My Love!” proves he deserves to be.
All of the album is dipped in the chocolate of ’70s funk and soul, but virtually half of it can be chalked up to Funkadelic directly: “Have Some Love” echoes the acoustic guitar and melodic chanting of “Can You Get To That,” and while “The Night Me And Your Mama Met” isn’t as close of a direct ode to “Maggot Brain” as Mike Watt’s outright cover or John Frusciante’s total rip-off, it’s hard not to hear Eddie Hazel’s late-night heartbreak in the guitar. (The story goes that George Clinton gave the Funkadelic guitarist some acid and told him to “play like your mama just died”; Gambino’s song title choices do not appear to be coincidental.)
“Boogieman” takes the same scale as Kool And The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” speeds it up, and twists it around. While its shouts are reminiscent of Clinton’s deep-fried funk acting on “March To The Witch’s Castle,” the riffs sound like “Cosmic Slop,” and the ass-busting groove of synth bass is the most dance-worthy thing to come out of Atlanta since Outkast’s “Dracula’s Wedding.” When the album isn’t honoring Funkadelic, it’s jamming out to early Sly & The Family Stone—not the laid-back work, but the roar of There’s A Riot Goin’ On without the political weight, as seen on “Baby Boy.” These reference-heavy song titles don’t feel like calculated, calcified tributes, but like a user-friendly guide to what the stylistic building blocks were.
Gambino gets extra credit for not simply cruising through old records and putting his voice over reworkings; the music here is boldly fresh and new. “Redbone” plays as though he memorized every note and lyric Prince ever released and jammed it on a Bootsy Collins song, but it adds a clean layering of guitar melodies in the outro that the Purple One never attempted. Listen closely and you’ll realize the guitar part is actually three guitar parts, what appears to be organ is often an additional guitar, and an actual xylophone doubles the melody. There aren’t released musicians’ credits yet, but whoever is playing this funk deserves all the admiration and adoration that Kendrick Lamar’s band received for To Pimp A Butterfly.
What The Life Of Pablo was trying for with gospel, “Awaken, My Love!” has succeeded at with funk and soul. It is not an antique car with a new paint job, but the redesigned Challenger, a work of modern design that’s damn proud of its heritage, and it offers a beautiful ride. It isn’t quite perfect, still occasionally dropping in the immature self-references without self-awareness that could make his earlier work cringe-inducing (a failed use of fast food as metaphor on “Terrified” briefly sours an otherwise smoothly sweet song). But this time around, the music is breathtaking enough that it comes together as personality rather than flaw, conflict rather than failure. When he pushes his voice it sounds like baring his soul, not the limitation of vocal cords.
Is Childish Gambino suddenly the new Prince, a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist always ready to keep the world an arm’s length away from knowing what he’s thinking? Is he D’Angelo, a soul god fighting against his first image with all-time great music? No. He is Donald Glover, a man who can perform and write comedy, act in drama, and drop a truly wonderful album on short notice with all the influences and instructions spelled out. It was easy to sleep on the nerd rap of Childish Gambino before. Awaken, my love.