You could argue that Childish Gambino became a great hip-hop artist when he stopped rapping, but that would be unfair. Over the course of two albums and a handful of mixtapes, the artist also known as actor and screenwriter Donald Glover has proven himself a decent lyricist. However, his best moments on his 2011 debut Camp arrived when he threw out the humblebrag playbook and exploded our stereotypes of black youth by addressing bullying and growing up in a two-parent household. His 2013 follow-up, Because the Internet, is remembered for when he harmonized wistfully on tracks like the hit single “3005.” With his 2014 EP Kauai, he barely rapped at all, instead offering a short suite of winningly pop meditations on summer romance. Much like André 3000 and Kanye West, Childish Gambino seems to have realized that his music can be just as resonant, if not more so, when he brings a hip-hop sensibility to vocals and melodies, and leaves the bars behind.
For his third album, “Awaken, My Love!”, Gambino delves into the kind of grungy stanklove that OutKast once indulged in on their magnum opuses. When its first track, “Me and Your Mama,” was sent to websites last month, listeners were stunned at the epic six-minute track, its soaring gospel chorus and the raggedly intense feeling he summoned with ease. (Some already anticipated his evolution – he debuted the project during his Pharos Festival at Joshua Tree, California last September.) While the rest of the album, produced by longtime collaborator Ludwig Göransson, doesn’t quite equal that sensational single, it’s still an inspired detour from a multi-talented hyphenate who has already dazzled us this fall with his critically acclaimed comedy-drama, Atlanta.
Whether it’s rocking his best George Clinton impression over the platform boot stomp of “Boogieman,” or delivering a deep-hued spoken word manifesto on “Baby Boy,” Childish Gambino fully inhabits his funkadelic guise. On “Have Some Love,” he swings with a leisurely gait akin to Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That” as he implores us, “Have some time for one another/Really love one another.” He subtly underlines his excursions with a message: “Stay woke … now don’t you close your eyes,” he cries in a high, Prince-like falsetto on “Redbone,” a spacy boogie exploration that thumps with thick lowrider bass. The wah-wah guitars and rolling percussion of “Riot” crackle with psychedelic energy. When he serenades a girl moving to the Golden State over the kitschy calypso beat of “California,” it adds well-timed comic levity to his heavy soul odyssey.
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Is “Awaken, My Love!” just a fantastic conceit? There’s some evidence of that: The themes of “Baby Boy,” which slinks along like an outtake from Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On, and the Eddie Hazel-like scratch-guitar instrumental “The Night Me and Your Mama Met,” sound as if they could be coming from the mind of Earn Marks, the Princeton dropout, babydaddy and would-be rap manager at the center of Atlanta. Only time will tell if Childish Gambino has remade himself into the post-millennial D’Angelo. But for now, “Awaken, My Love!” is an enthralling trip into the land of funk.