donald glover

#15: Childish Gambino - "Awaken, My Love!" (2016)

We here at Mookbarks HQ have been known to be vaguely organised, which means that there is a 52A/52W spreadsheet with the next few weeks' worth of choices on it. When Awaken, My Love! appeared on this spreadsheet, some time in February, it turned out that Emily had already heard it. I know this, because she annotated it, "I LOVE this album!"

On first listen, it sounded like chillout music, until two minutes into the first song ("Me and Your Mama"), when my eyebrows shot towards my hairline. Emily's not wrong. It's pretty bloody good.

Childish Gambino is the stage name of Donald Glover, who I know from Community and from a hundred and one mental notes that I really need to get around to watching Parks and Recreation. According to the internet, the name "Childish Gambino" came from a Wu-Tang Clan name generator, and between those things, you can get a pretty good idea of the creative vision at work here: a writer with great comic timing, and a finger on the popular-cultural pulse. It's very stylistically eclectic – not just between tracks (which is refreshing in itself for me after the Nirvana debacle a fortnight ago) but also from one end of a song to another.

That could go one of two ways: irritatingly scattergun, or the kind of person you want to sit next to at a party. Fortunately, Awaken, My Love! errs very much towards the latter, ranging from the eminently optimistic, nod-to-gospel "Have Some Love" to the more narrative, bluesy "Baby Boy". There are strong notes of funk to be found, of R&B, and shades of what might even be prog-rock. If anything, the second single, "Redbone" (the first one was "Me and Your Mama") is one of the least interesting songs on the album – but let me reiterate, there is a High Damn Bar being set here.

One thing I've spent probably a little too long pondering is the album title - the words "Awaken, My Love" don't actually appear out loud. Given that two song titles refer to "your mama", the most logical explanation seems to me that it's addressed to Glover's own child, who was born the year it came out. If so, that would make this a collection of stories with a very personal bent to them - if not exactly in terms of fact, then of the emotions or fragments of memory they evoke, saved for posterity and to tell a child what the world is like. If AML! is trying to describe a worldview, then, that makes me even more inclined to want to sit next to Glover at a party. Apart from being fundamentally an optimist with an eye for a good detail, I bet he's got an anecdote or two to tell.

Plus, on a personal level, I'm a big fan of straight-faced songs about weird stuff. So here you go, my favourite is "Zombies":

I gather this is a bit of a departure from Glover's previous music, which tended much more towards rap, and was fairly heavily focused towards live performance. I can see how rap might suit him – apart from working best when he's fast talking and fitting many elements into a small space, one minor problem with AML! is that his singing voice is sometimes a bit over-autotuned. Bits of the final song, "Stand Tall" gives the distinct impression of being "the one at the end where all the guests come up", which feels like it might work really well live, where there’s the opportunity to attach some visual spectacle to it. In purely audio form, though, it’s the track where there most feels like something is missing.

But, you know, I don't care. I had a great time. Awaken, My Love! is well conceived, like a tasting menu of things I like and might not otherwise have tried. It feels like a lot of thought has gone into it. I appreciate that. By and large, it's a delight to listen to.