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Review: Childish Gambino Is Actually Good Now

With this year’s debut of Atlanta, the delicately-crafted and critically-acclaimed FX series about black life in miniature is what brought Donald Glover to light as an auteur, a genius who could thrive on the screen and on tape … theoretically, at least. His music as Childish Gambino, in which he plays the character of an impulsive rap outsider with a knack for wildly misfiring punchlines (“If I’m a faggot spell it right / I got way more than two G’s”), has been polarizing. His debut effort Camp’s self-seriousness turned him into joke fodder for most critical circles; Because the Internet fell apart because of its muddled concept (some shit about Internet trolling and Abella Anderson), though it suggested Gambino’s potential didn’t lie within misanthropic raps but in stargazing pop.

The post-Atlanta narrative dictated that “Awaken, My Love!”, Glover’s third album, would also be his first brilliant one. When lead singles “Me and Your Mama” and “Redbone” rolled out with their obvious connections to P-Funk freakouts and Prince’s climactic falsetto, it felt like a purposeful step in his creative process, rather than a playful shift. “Awaken, My Love!” and Atlanta were created in the same creative headspace, too; Gambino rented a house in which writers would work in the daytime before musicians replaced in the night. “I never really saw them as different things,” Glover said to Billboard in a November profile.

While Atlanta took a starkly modernist approach to portraying black life in miniature, “Awaken, My Love!” voyages through the past with throwback, psychedelic soul. Successful homages traffic in self-expression, instead of pastiche—think the-Dream paying homage to Prince on “Fast Car,” or Flying Lotus citing George Clinton’s Afrofuturism on You’re Dead!. Although his Funkadelic-inspired project never quite feels as distinctive as either, “Awaken, My Love!” shows Gambino making huge strides as a performer. It’s the first LP where he sounds comfortable, as on the twinkling “Redbone,” where he fills the margins of the song with falsetto nothings, and slips a sly warning of “niggas creeping” right before climaxing with a primal shout.

That combination of bottled passion and efficiency spreads itself evenly through the 11-track set. The bass-riding “Terrified” finds Gambino slickly mixing up his phrasing, moving from tenor wooing to intimate whispers. There’s the spacious lullaby “Baby Boy,” a convincing Sly Stone sendup that spotlights Childish Gambino’s anxieties as a new father (“This love for me is fading / You waited, but I never came home to you”). Previously, Gambino often lacked the original thought to sustain his apprehensions as an outsider, which were delivered through rants and half-realized experimentations. Here, he woozily unfurls his fears—the fragility of a black child’s life, and the strained romance behind it—in a way that invites the listeners’ empathy.

In the same conversation with Billboard, Glover said that “Awaken, My Love!”’s sonic direction stems from his childhood memories of listening to the Isley Brothers and Funkadelic, as well as the air of revolution surrounding ’70s music. Consequently, Gambino’s lyrics occasionally feel like vague approximations of his predecessors’ politics, so the revelations become more performative than fulfilling. “Have Some Love” is essentially a stand-in for Maggot Brain’s “Can You Get to That”; “Boogieman” reiterates that black cool isn’t a skill but a survival necessity for a constantly targeted people. The anti-leeches number “Zombies” could’ve benefitted from Gambino’s writerly charms, but instead simply floats by with ghostly studio work.

But they aren’t bad songs: “Boogieman” is a romp mostly buoyed by the instrumentation, a gospel-backed jam session that swings into wah-wah soaked respites. The weak Jason Mraz take “California” and the closer “Stand Tall,”  a paternal ode that never extends past its good intentions, are the only misfortunes here. Despite those two tracks, “Awaken, My Love!” still stands as Childish Gambino’s strongest set. The year’s biggest albums tended to mark a completion of some sort of narrative: Coloring Book solidified Chance the Rapper as Chicago’s finest son, ANTI projected Rihanna as an autonomous artiste. Childish Gambino, on the other hand, needed to hit a hard reset on his story. Finally, the narrative is going somewhere good.