Can Funk Give Childish Gambino What He Needs?
On '"Awaken My Love!"' Donald Glover reckons with fatherhood, but the music is less interesting than the circumstances.
Donald Glover is having a career year. His television show, Atlanta—for which he is a writer and star—could've easily been a disaster, tasked as it was with representing the city's culture. But with incredible precision and laboured over love and humour, the show became a deserved hit. It vindicated his 2013 decision to leave Community in order to follow his own path and allowed critics to truly appreciate his talent as a writer and creative. It's for this reason that it feels a little frustrating to listen to "Awaken, My Love!", his newest album under his musical alter ego Childish Gambino.
"Awaken, My Love!" from its spacey, provocative album cover to the last song is pure Funkadelic cosplay, an attempt to adapt Maggot Brain for the social media age. Worst of all, it has all the trademarks and trapping of a musician making their "Serious Album"; it's prestige music meant to win over critics at a time when the pendulum of black music is swinging back to social and political commentary to reflect what's happening to the world in general and black people in particular. Childish Gambino has always gotten a bad rap both because of Donald's bro comedy persona and it's denigration as "special black snowflake" music—raps for black kids who "aren't like the others"—but the music has always had truly insightful and original moments. His last album, Because The Internet, wasn't amazing, but it was intriguing—dark and nihilistic about the internet age, battling between hopeless and hopeful. Also there were plenty of good songs on it. "Awaken, My Love!" by contrast uses the psychedelic funk of George Clinton and Bootsy Collins and makes for a more rosy vision of our age but is much less daring in its sound. The effort is there and laudable, but the music is missing that sense of true bewilderment and thrill that made those Funk records so great. It's a cover band job that works for our particular social climate but not so much on its own merits musically. The most interesting thing about the album has less to do with the music itself but instead the circumstances around it.
Back in October, in the midst of Atlanta's season, news broke about Donald Glover being a father. It was a secret he'd kept close until paparazzi photos of him and his girlfriend, bassinet in tow, walking the street had come out. Under this context, along with the lyrics and song titles on the album, it's safe to say that "Awaken, My Love!" served as the soundtrack of Glover's journey to fatherhood. You can see Glover's pleasure and honour about being a dad come out on record. Songs like "Me and Your Mama and "Baby Boy" are like musical equivalents to Kunta Kinte's Birth Ritual; he's acknowledging his responsibility and joy in making a whole human who will have to navigate the world.
The music made around the time of a great, dramatic shift in an artist's personal life gives insight into where they are mentally during all this change. A recent and easy comparison point would be Yeezus, an album made in the midst of Kanye West's engagement to a then-pregnant Kim Kardashian. It would be West's first marriage and child. One of the more interesting aspects of Yeezus, beyond the music itself, was his headspace surrounding it. Along with the frustrations he was having with the fashion industry, he was beginning the terrifying transition to fatherhood and being a husband, and the music comes to terms with this fear. But where Yeezus felt like an exorcism, "Awaken, My Love!" feels more like, well, an awakening. Its heavy use of Funkadelic and Sly Stone instrumentation, Bootsy's wobbly singing style, and high-pitched Prince wails are in service to the love, hopefulness, and, of course, fears about bringing a new life into the world. "Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall / If you are strong you cannot fall / There is a voice inside us all / So smile when you can": This comes at the end during "Stand Tall" and guides much of the attitude of the album. Even more, it's noted in the song that this was advice that Glover's father said. A man who once joked that he'd "rather have AIDS than a baby" is, here, suddenly steadfast and ready to handle this new challenge and impart knowledge such as "stay woke. Niggas creepin" from the song "Redbone."
It makes sense that Glover would end up in this space. Parliament and Funkadelic were bands that, more than making amazing music, created a utopia. Before the term Afrofuturism was officially coined, P-Funk was music that contained science fiction elements, creating an intergalactic world where black people were the heroes and black issues were the concern. In a world where a black child isn't safe, the Afrofuturistic music of P-Funk tells of another world where that same child is a necessity and a star. It's easy to see how Glover could grab onto the radical psychedelia of a song like "Hit It and Quit It" and find a comfort and pride in bringing another black person into the world. With that said, though, despite the intentions for the music, there doesn't seem to be much to songs themselves that makes them rise past cover band quality.
The best songs ("Zombies," "Riot," "Redbone," "Terrified") are enjoyable in spite of this, but the worst songs ("Have Some Love," "California") make it painfully obvious you're listening to the off-brand stuff. The music thrives for being an extremely black record at a turbulent time for black people in America—what with high profile police shootings, protests and a Trump presidency that seems to welcome and encourage exclusion and hate. But it's way too flimsy of a record to stand on its own. Lyrics such as: "Every boy and girl, all around the world / knows my niggas' words / but if he's scared of me, how can we be free?" found in "Boogieman" and refreshing and thought-provoking, but the construct around it leaves one cold. The thing about George Clinton or Prince or Bootsy is that they were so off the wall original, genius, and intricate in their styles that any imitation feels more like parody than homage. "Awaken, My Love!" is a prime example of the ideas being too big for the music: The evolution of Donald Glover hasn't allowed for one with Childish Gambino yet, but, admirably, the effort is there to be some sort of voice both for his new family and for this era. In a radio interview, George Clinton answered the question of "what is funk" with the following: "Funk is anything you need to be when it needs to be that." The music will surely connect with some even if it feels like a misfire creatively, but what is certain is that "Awaken, My Love!" affirms George Clinton's viewpoint—and with it—Donald Glover, father and artist, is showing us who he needs to be.
Israel Daramola is keeping it funky on Twitter.