Donald Glover's big year keeps getting bigger. In the past three months, he launched one of TV's best new series, got cast as this generation's Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars anthology film about a young Han Solo and his pals, and today, he dropped "Awaken, My Love!", his first album as Childish Gambino in three years.
Previous Gambino efforts were rap albums that detailed the struggles and triumphs of a person in Glover's position. He rapped to offer inspiration to "these smart middle-class black kids [who] need a role model," sharing stories of growing up alienated as "the only black kid at a Sufjan concert" and to express the horniness that came with being a young man on a hit TV show who suddenly found himself the object of attention from women. He's been a screenwriter, a comedian, an actor, and a rapper, and all of that bled into his work as Childish Gambino—he told stories, dropped punchlines, and very much played a part as a performer. Radio didn't exactly embrace those efforts, but if you went to Coachella or Austin City Limits for a set, you were well aware that there was a fervent audience of college-aged fans who couldn't get enough of the way he brought heartfelt, angsty raps with surprising punchlines out in front of a live band. As a rapper, Glover was neither over- nor underrated—he just did his thing to an audience that wanted it.
That paragraph reads like a eulogy, because that version of Childish Gambino appears to be dead. On "Awaken, My Love!", there's no rapping, and not a whole lot for college kids to shout along with. Instead, we have a very different kind of artist making a record that wears its inspiration—the late '60s and '70s soul freakouts of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and the other occupants of the Mothership are well-represented here, along with elements of Isaac Hayes, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Sly and the Family Stone—you get the idea. When Glover belts out a plea to the "Boogieman" insisting "you've got to help us" over distorted guitars before maniacal laughter comes in and the track fades into fuzz, the throwback works.
The album comes at a time when music that draws its inspiration from the P-Funk era is having a bit of a moment. The spirit of George Clinton infused recent album-of-the-year contenders from D'Angelo's Black Messiah to Bilal's In Another Life to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, both of which seem like they're tapping a socially conscious, revolutionary vein that Glover seems like he'd like to get in on. There are hooks on those records, like there are hooks on "Awaken, My Love!", but the throwback feel here isn't the easy, wedding reception pop familiarity of "Uptown Funk."
All of which might sound like something of a backhanded compliment. It's not hard to read "Awaken, My Love!" as Glover's attempt to put Childish Gambino in a context alongside folks like Kendrick and the other artists exploring the revolutionary vibe of the '70s records whose influence they wear on their sleeve. (Indeed, he told Billboard recently that "There’s something about that ’70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution.") But "the album is an impressive imitation of George Clinton and company" isn't exactly a description of an artistic triumph. It's just more or less accurate. He also told Billboard that he saw "Awaken, My Love!" as "an exercise in just feeling and tone," which sounds about right. There's a lot of feeling and a lot of tone on the album, and it's imminently listenable—but where the other albums exploring those same feelings and tones did so in ways that felt shockingly new, the Childish Gambino project has more of a feel of pastiche.
There are crueler fates, of course, than making a record that's not as good as Black Messiah. Bilal's FX series would probably not reach the heights of Atlanta, and Kendrick Lamar would make a B+ Lando Calrissian at best. "Awaken, My Love!" is more like Glover's trip aboard the Mothership than it is his attempt to launch his own. An artist could do a whole lot worse.