Monday, December 5, 2016

Childish Gambino - "Awaken, My Love!" Review

There's no easy way to start this review. For longtime readers, it's been known that much of my writing comes from understanding an artist's background, a genre's complexities, or a culture's current trends and behaviors. With "Awaken, My Love!", Childish Gambino counteracted all that, immediately making this a difficult review to write. You see, he didn't just progress, take a detour, or regress, he straight up transported himself out of expectations and into the bubbling precipice of 1970's Soul and Funk. Sure, there were hints of both genres in Gambino's work, the former being an origin point of R&B, the latter the point for Hip-Hop, the two genres Gambino dabbles in the most, but only a soothsayer could expect such a jarring transition. But, I suppose, the unexpected is right up Gambino's alley. I mean, this is the man who penned a 72-page screenplay and turned it into 2013's Because The Internet, after all. The last time someone in Hip-Hop shifted this drastically the year was 2008 and Kanye West just created a somber ElectroPop manifesto entitled 808's & Heartbreak. However, Awaken is more striking, distant, and atypical than that piece, making Childish Gambino's latest work a conflicting LP that relies heavily on the past.

When Awaken's lead single 'Me And Your Mama' dropped, it seemed as if every music critic simultaneously focused their attention on the gaudy, multi-layered Soul/Funk epic. Praise was contagious, rightfully so, as the album's opener both shocked and awed listeners who failed to see such a track coming out of 2016. 'Redbone,' which released a week later, only went on to confirm notions that, yes, Childish Gambino is really doing this. And besides a plastic stucco face drenched in moonlit blue decorating the album's cover, Awaken didn't have much of a visual stimuli to garner attention, which meant all the acclaim Gambino garnished early on came directly from the daring sonics found within. To make a long story short, to cut out all the fluff talk, these two tracks are, unquestionably, the best Awaken has to offer. Both a compliment to their eclectic nature, and a criticism of what's left on the LP, Awaken suffers from the same fate countless albums endure by pushing the best out first. 'Me And Your Mama' and 'Redbone' accomplished sentiments I wish the rest of the LP shared, in that their influences were noted, but not obsessed.

From a sonic standpoint, that's where Awaken rocks unsteadily. Don't get me wrong, the production is illuminating, evocative, and sublime, but, by and large, that's because of Gambino's influences, which he wears, more often than not, on his sleeve. Sure, the two singles brought about conversations with Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, and D'Angelo in them, but they never traveled beyond stationary foundations Gambino used to build off of. But then songs like 'Have Some Love' and 'Boogieman' exist, which both worship George Clinton to irksome levels, 'Riot' which is Funk by-the-books, and 'Baby Boy' that intensely draws from Sly & The Family Stone's 'Just Like A Baby' and Outkast's 'Toilet Tisha.' During these moments, Gambino's less of an artist and more of a replicator. In fact, the one track that's unquestionably his own work, 'California,' has been declared the worst. While that belief is founded, as it does shift Awaken drastically around a breezy, tropical bend, the overtly curious vocal performance and peppy hook are catchy enough to warrant keeping around. Still though, it's presence feels entirely unwanted, as no track around it borrows from the same sources, receives the same tone, or vibes off the same emotions. In fact, the transition to 'Terrified' is so harsh and incompatible that that song suffers from it as well.

As I sat with the album, slowly becoming situated with my thoughts, its contextual origin was finally brought to my attention. You see, I was of the firm belief that Gambino's absurd ambition transferred from content to production, as if all the work he put into his script for Because The Internet was shifted to sonic influences on Awaken. While that still holds true, Awaken isn't slouching topically speaking, something I once believed was the case. Newly birthed into this world, the album is actually dedicated to Donald Glover's son, with track titles like 'You And Your Mama' and 'Baby Boy' bringing on new meaning with that fresh perspective. Not only that, a majority of topics, from 'Boogieman' and 'Zombies'' warning of humanities bad side, to 'Have Some Love' and 'Stand Tall's' peace-wielding ways, posit Awaken as a memento for the boy to keep as he grows older. With many considering the LP to be little more than a Funk cover album, this newfound frame of reference helps to offer meaning, value, and purpose that wasn't initially at hand. Even the sudden shift in genre can be explained thanks to this, as Glover's own childhood could've easily been graced with the Funk, Soul, and Rock from his father's music collection, something he wishes to pass down.

Despite this, there's just something off about Awaken. Something that's not sitting right. It may be the imitations, or the lack of structural surprises (something BTI was known for), or the fact that 'Me And Your Mama' and 'Redbone' are the two best cuts here. Really, realistically, it's likely all of the above, and then some. At one point or another, someone suggested authenticity to me, or lack thereof. And while that's a point of contention, there's no denying Gambino, to me, succeeded in discovering the nuances, intricacies, and details of Funk. Sure, he replicated the obvious pieces (the literal bells and whistles, the unified African chants, the deep tenor of Clinton saying "that's right baby"), but beyond that, it seems, his aim was to establish Funk in a new era for those who are losing sight of Hip-Hop's origins. Either that, or Gambino saw the coming trend of Funk in Hip-Hop (thanks to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly), and decided to leapfrog over it all to appear ahead of the curb. Regardless of his connotations, or the successes and failures the album presents, "Awaken, My Love!" is something to behold. I won't say it's an important album yet, but Gambino's Funk-finding ways might just be the course correction he wanted Hip-Hop to have.

No comments:

Post a Comment