While America broke, Donald Glover thrived. His long-awaited sitcom Atlanta was an exalted take on the surrealism of blackness, he introduced “Bad and Boujee” to the Golden Globe bourgeoisie, “Awaken, My Love!” was a P-funk romp too charismatic to be written off as a derivative, and “Redbone” is still on the Hot 100. He’s been on a creative streak that encompasses multiple mediums, and sometimes, the ideas bled into each other.
Hence the virtual reality vinyl. On November 30, the Childish Gambino website revealed “Awaken, My Love!” would be available in that format, whatever it meant. The concept was about as wild as an invisible car, except it actually cost money. The normally articulate Childish Gambino fell into vague descriptors when he tried to explain what exactly $59.99 would get you. “It’s a vinyl that you play with virtual reality,” he said. Do you get abducted into the vinyl grooves and take part in some horny Jumanji? Does a life-sized hologram of Black Justin Bieber spring up from the vinyl player as a bonus?
It turns out we didn’t need to stretch our imaginations because a “virtual reality vinyl” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a cardboard pair of virtual reality glasses that work in conjunction with the PHAROS app; you get a vinyl disc, too. “Awaken, My Love!”‘s vinyl edition finally drops today, and last night, Rough Trade NYC hosted brief previews for press and the general public. Inside the record store, general admission fans lined up in front of a vinyl display that included Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and the general pantheon of classic rock musicians that make white men in uncombed beards smile and silently mutter, “Mmm, that’s good shit.” (The attending fans were mostly college age, however.) While the past was put on sale, the futuristic VR experience was held in the windowed room on Rough Trade’s second floor.
The future, it turns out, comprises late-90s video game graphics and tribal creatures. When I walked in, the room already had one brother, seated and strapped into some black and shiny VR goggles. He was smiling as he watched, so I assumed it was good. Immediately, I was greeted by a pleasant Brit working the event. After asking me cursory questions about the night (“Have you heard of the performance?”), I sat down and was soon within the Gambino experience. Scored by Gambino’s PHAROS performance, the VR places you in a haunted ecosphere where the jungle leaves are colored in every tropical shade but green. Animated skeletons gathered in a kumbaya, kneeling and lounging in afterlife joy. Gambino appeared as an apparition, boyishly singing the album closer “Stand Tall.”
The darkness that appeared as a subtle undertone on the album threw itself to the forefront; the results were jarring enough to elicit anxiety. At one point, a ghoul that looked like a deformed Grim Fandango suddenly appeared uncomfortably close to my periphery. I wanted to punch it, but because virtual reality exists beyond the reach of my fists, I would’ve ended up hitting a Glassnote Records representative. For the 10 seconds faux Fandango floated before me, I sat frightened and helpless.
The phantasmagoric imagery didn’t really augment “Awaken, My Love!” like an immersive experience ought to. Even within the 3D jungle nocturne, I was aware “California” sucked. And to that point, the VR reality experience is fine because the album is fine. But the inclusion of VR rarely seems to be as forward-thinking as their users purport; it largely seems like a perfunctory use of newfound resources. Dawn Richard dropped her interactive video for “Lazarus” and “Love Under Lights” last week, and I mainly remember being in a bad way for the rest of the day—not because the video blew me away, but because it caused my Mac to glitch out. People have this tendency to view the future as this self-fulfilling prophecy waiting to manifest. It’s not; it’s simply a new thing to do. The college kids are here for now, but eventually they’ll figure it out.