We’re now at the point where any discussion of Donald Glover can, depending on the publication, refer to him as a musician who acts rather than an actor who dabbles in music (or vice versa if the piece is discussing his work as an actor, of course). Rather it’s time to stop thinking of him as one or the other and appreciate his multifaceted talent for what it is. With any luck, Awaken, My Love! will finally afford him the respect as a musician he so richly deserves. After cutting something of a divisive figure when first appearing under the Childish Gambino moniker, Glover has continued to defy expectations, moving from mixtape wise-ass to autobiographical backpacker and internet meme too, in his latest and best incarnation, an interstellar funk traveler.
Having largely jettisoned the hip-hop element of his Childish Gambino persona, Glover here shows himself to have become a devout student of his Parliament/Funkadelic and Sly Stone records. With Awaken, My Love! he has brought these classic elements of funk weirdness into a modern context, vocal affectations, sound effects and all. It’s a strange move for an artist formerly in the throes of the backpacker/mixtape scene, yet it seems a more apt fit for his type of social messaging, the likes of which he has embarked upon as both himself and through his critically-acclaimed FX program Atlanta.
To be sure, 2016 is a pivotal time for black artists to come forth with their socio-political statements about the seemingly endless violence perpetrated towards black men at the hands of the nation’s police forces. And on “Boogieman”, the most pointed piece here, he does just that. “With a gun in your hand / I’m the boogieman / I’m gonna come and get you,” he mock-sneers, following it quickly with, “Though we’re not the one / But in the bounds of your mind / We have done the crime.” While it’s played up for a certain level of absurdity, the underlying sentiment is one of extreme prejudice on the part of many of our nation’s police officers, an affliction that has cost far too many innocent young black men their lives.
While there are elements of social and political commentary scattered throughout, Awaken’s focus seems to be a sense of atmosphere and tone rather than any definitively stated message. Borrowing elements of P-Funk and post-Riot Sly, Glover here delves deep into this new persona, losing himself in a myriad of voices that range from the comedic to the unhinged—his wildly over-exaggerated vocal affectation on “Zombies” makes him sound like more than a bit like Rockwell. This steadfast refusal to adhere to one literal and figurative voice causes the album to lose some of the impact it meant to carry regarding profundity. Regardless, it’s still wickedly funky and endlessly enjoyable.
A fine collection of choice influences, Awaken plays more as an homage to the past than forward-thinking artistic statement from a vital young voice. Considering the influences prominently displayed throughout, there are far worse things Glover could have attempted. Because of this, Awaken will feel more familiar than perhaps anything else he has done, functioning as the musical equivalent of Community and its meta approach to comedy, pop culture and itself. Opening track “Me and Your Mama” cribs heavily from Funkadelic with its psychedelic soul and otherworldly vibe, while “Have Some Love” utilizes Sly and the Family Stone’s penchant for unison chants, wickedly funky distorted bass and an incessant drum groove.
On the whole, Awaken, My Love! is a pronounced departure from Glover’s Childish Gambino persona—and a welcome one at that. Like a lightweight 2016 Black Messiah, Awaken relies on a darkly claustrophobic, funky insularity to carry listeners through what has been an unbelievably shitty year. By looking at the past, we can hopefully reshape what is looking to be an increasingly bleak future. Start with the music, then use it and its principles to affect social change. The new revolution will not only be televised, but it will groove like nothing else. Awaken, indeed.