It is official. 2016 is the year of Donald Glover, who managed to resurface in the pop culture scene after a two-year hiatus with his critically acclaimed show, “Atlanta,” and a new album under his alter ego, Childish Gambino. “Awaken, My Love!” is the third studio album by Gambino and it trades his fast-paced, reference-laden rap style for a warm combination of soul driven falsetto and crunchy funk.
Over the years, Gambino has grown immensely as a performer, moving from his amateur hip hop mixtape days to a new self-assured swagger in his latest release. Hints of Gambino’s dramatic style change were felt on his 2014 extended play, “Kauai,” which saw the rapper beginning to flex his vocal chops over heavier levels of R&B style production. “Awaken, My Love!” sees that transformation come full circle.
The album opens with the single “Me and Your Mama,” which perfectly encapsulates the tone for the rest of the record. It opens with a lullaby-esque aroma of voices that ease the listener into the track. A smooth synthesizer finds the melody and nestles it into the lullaby — all until the pace picks up and the thunderous crash of drums sewn with distorted bass breaks the spell. Possessing urgency, Gambino’s raspy vocals plead to a closed-off lover and the background singers accentuate his desperate desire. After the climax, the progression quickly becomes reminiscent of classic funk when it eases into a slow jam of receding drums and synth solos. After the powerful opener, the rest of “Awaken, My Love!” follows suit. The second single, “Redbone,” takes inspiration from groups like Parliament Funkadelic with its structured rhythm and weary vocals. Over a syncopated slap-bass, Gambino utilizes his smooth falsetto and does his best Prince impression for the entirety of the track.
Other highlights on the album include further explorations into 70s funk with tracks like “Boogieman” and “Have Some Love,” where Gambino attempts to create an anthem demanding nothing but peace, love and understanding. Halfway through the record, there is a quick reprieve from the drama, as Gambino smartly places a comedic take on calypso music to insert some needed levity. Entitled “California,” the track sounds straight out of a travel brochure with a shot of tropical energy. Toward the end of the album, heavily layered production takes the spotlight, where tracks like “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” and “Stand Tall” are nearly all instrumental and ease the record to a close.
By the end of the album, it becomes apparent that Sly & the Family Stone’s legendary albums, “Stand!” and “There’s A Riot Goin’ On,” are the templates for Gambino’s new sound. Both albums act as the perfect juxtaposition of musical motifs, where “Stand!” is a jubilant explosion of soul-infused hope and “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” is the inevitable downturn — or the end of the party — with its mournful funk. Gambino mixes the ideas of those albums together in his latest release and it creates a simmering slow-burn effect with occasional bursts of ecstasy.
After a two-year hiatus, Gambino has returned to the music scene with a completely new sound that promises even greater things to come. Funk, soul and swagger are the main tenants of “Awaken, My Love!” and they are blended together through seamless production. Fans are likely to appreciate Gambino’s musical reinvention and newcomers will surely want to dig into his previous work.