Album Review: Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!”

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Jack Donahue, Co-Editor-In-Chief

Childish Gambino has always been hard to pin down. On Dec. 2 the rapper released his first album in two years. Titled “Awaken, My Love!.,” it stands as a bold experiment and vast departure from his previous work, but it’s a risk that pays off completely.

Earlier in his career, Gambino was known for complex, semi-conscious rap that showed he had the ability to do great things but lacked the motivation. His first studio effort, 2011’s “Camp,” came off as preachy, whiny, and conceited. While his follow-up, 2013’s “Because The Internet,” was an obvious improvement in terms of his attitude and skills on the mic, it was made up of a staggering 19 tracks of songs with the same monotonous and unnecessary themes. “Awaken, My Love!” is a completely different album.

At its core, it is a funk album, and Gambino wears his influences on his sleeve. Tracks “Have Some Love” and “Boogieman” are heavily influenced by the posse choruses and instrumental stylings of soul/funk pioneers Funkadelic.  Gambino even goes so far as to sample funk bassist Bootsy Collins in “Redbone.”

Instrumentally, the album is immaculate. The diverse, lush sounds show an extreme attention to detail and love for a genre that has been considered dead since the 1980s. Every track builds a wall of bass guitar and high hats, hand-claps and punchy percussion that evokes the spirit of funk. The simultaneous self-awareness, sensuality and utopian ideals that serve as hallmarks of the genre and make it so fun to listen to are all present here.

The gorgeous, fun instrumentals built up over the course of the album serve as a compliment to Gambino’s voice. Throughout the album, Gambino shows a grittiness and impressive vocal range that haven’t really been seen in his earlier projects, jumping from pained, passionate shouts on opening track “Me And Your Mama” to the high-pitched crooning of “Redbone.”  

However, there are some faults to the album. Some songs tend to run too short, while others overstay their welcome by about 2 or 3 minutes. The song “Riot,” a chaotic funk cut composed of swirling instrumentals cuts off around the two-minute mark, leaving the listener before the track manages to reach its full potential. On the other side of the spectrum is closing track “Stand Tall,” an overlong and pretentious song that abandons the funk stylings shown earlier on in the album and grows boring about 3 minutes in. Even Gambino’s reliance on his influences comes off as detrimental at times, where it seems like he is simply trying to find his footing.

The most glaring issue with the album lies about halfway through, with the track “California.” Gambino sings in a calypso croon that is all over the map pitch-wise, combining it with autotune and causing the listener to feel perplexed and put-off. The instrumentation and themes of the song are fun, as Gambino reflects on his fame over a light beat, but the song’s core reminds one of his roots in technically skilled, yet inherently flawed songs.

As a whole, the album is fantastic. Gambino pays tribute to the greats of the funk genre without impeding upon them. The album is both beautiful and a huge risk given as how commercially successful his earlier work has been. Gambino is trying to find his footing in a genre completely alien to him, but it’s great watching him evolve.