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Friday, December 30, 2016

Mike's Picks #9

Childish Gambino - Awaken, My Love 
Admission time; I've never been much of a believer in Childish Gambino.  Nothing against the man behind the project, I've never had a problem with Donald Glover as an actor, comedian, or any of the other forms of entertainment that he has dabbled in, but musically I was always left wanting.  He's obviously talented, his freestyles are really tight, but his studio tracks were never memorable to me.  Poppy, but lacking hooks, and fairly whiny.  I figured a few here and there tweaks to his style were all that he needed to push his brand of off-beat hip-hop to be something approaching special.  Instead, we get Awaken, My Love, one of the most surprising big albums of the year.  Not content with light tweaking, the album sounds nothing like his previous output.  There were subtle flashes of R&B and soul on previous releases, but here those influences are front and center.  If you played this record for die hard Childish Gambino fans who didn't know it was his new album, they probably would have no idea who they were listening to.  This is the Childish Gambino album for non-Childish Gambino myself.

To eliminate the elephant in the room, this album takes a lot of influence from Funkadelic's 1971 funk classic Maggot Brain.  The covers of each record are similar.  The break down in the first track (and later the reprise of said track) share sonic similarities to "Maggot Brain", the second song on Awaken... sounds like the second song on Maggot Brain, and the same could be said of the third tracks on both.  It could be said that Donald Glover is playing a role here; an actor playing out his Funkadelic cosplay fantasy.  It could also be said that none of that really matters when the songs are as catchy and funky as they are here.  Glover shows that he can play the role of 70s funk soul master better than he plays the role of MC.

As the album progresses, the Funkadelic worship begins to fade, giving way to a tighter, more concise style of R&B.  This starts with the single "Redbone", easily the best song on the album and one of the better songs released by anyone all year.  It has all the sexual tension and fire of a prime Prince ballad, from the falsetto to the slap bass and space synths.  This was the song where I realized how much of an artistic step up this was from Childish Gambino's previous material.  It's the type of instantly catchy, sultry and soulful music that will keep him relevant as long as he can keep it up.  This continues on songs like "Baby Boy" and "Stand Tall", which tackle the central theme of the record, fatherhood.

The lesson to be learned here is to never dismiss an artist based on their past work.  I would never have predicted that Childish Gambino would put out an album so mature and focused.  And to think, all he had to do was completely uproot his whole style.  Here's hoping he releases more music like this in the future.

Key Lyric:
Too late
You wanna make it right, but now it's too late
My peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid
I'm trying not to waste my time

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