When you separate the musician from the man, Childish Gambino’s identity is something to ponder. Projects like Camp and Because the Internet (and glowing mixtapes/EPs like Culdesac, Kauai, STN MTN, etc.) helped define his racial identity as well as dole out love lessons to listeners, spurring hits like “Heartbeat” and “3005.”
In retrospect, his past projects erred on the side of safety, whereas his late 2016 release tiptoes into more chancy territory. On his latest album Awaken My Love!, Gambino’s path is decorated with electronic P-Funk influences, an experimental sonic risk that is bound to pay off with fans.
After taking time away from music to focus on his theatrical talents, Gambino released “Me & Your Mama” to the masses in November. Under the surface, the six-minute track showcases his intention to love profusely, as aboriginal instrumentals like the lithopone blend admirably with tantalizing guitar riffs. There’s also a personal ode to the OutKast’s classic, “Ms. Jackson.” It gave fans a tease of what was to come like the loving second single, "Redbone."
Musical easter eggs were planted over a year in advance when he performed the track during his Bonnaroo set in 2015, and in September at his communal Pharos show at Joshua Tree.
He’s also made it known with several outlets his deeply rooted love for the P-Funk legends like Funkadelic and Sly and The Family Stone. “Maggot Brain is one of my favorites ever,” a baby-faced Gambino said to Amoeba in 2013. “My dad used to [say] ‘Eddie Hazel is the best guitarist ever, he’s better than Jimi [Hendrix].’” The singer/rapper also told Billboard that Awaken would focus on tone rather than pre-written material. “I remember hearing a Funkadelic scream and being like, ‘Wow, that’s sexual and it’s scary,’” he said. “Not having a name for that, though; just having a feeling. That’s what made it great.”
The feeling is mutual on Awaken with rap-free tracks like “Terrified” and “Riot,” as Gambino screams between callings of love, passion and togetherness. Heard over the course of 47 minutes, Gambino puts his vocal chops on front street in various tones. From the falsettos of “Redbone” to haunted animations on “Boogieman” and “Zombies,” it’s easy to get caught up in a sober audible drug trip. After all, we’ve all been hurting this year in some form. His free-flowing frequencies pulsate over the album and into our ears, healing us all with a heavy dose of black man magic. We’ve felt this over drum patterns by J.Cole and Kendrick Lamar, but immersing in the culture is a far cry from just sampling it (i.e. Cornrow Kenny’s To Pimp A Butterfly and untitled unmastered). Even a hypnotized Questlove had to flood D’Angelo with 4 a.m. phone calls after hearing Awaken. It’s just that mesmerizing.
Love is the mission with Awaken, but not just for the couples out there. On “Have Some Fun” the artist wants us all to leave hate in the fiery trash can that was 2016 and “have some time for one another” with a joyful similarity to Funkadelic’s “Good To Your Earhole” record.
“California” also highlights the desire for a woman to find tranquility in the sunny paradise by any means possible. Bearing a resemblance to Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime,” the song focuses a little more on the woes the dreamer faces to hang out with the likes of viral stars like DC Young Fly. We’re aware of what living in our phones can do, but it's still a wet dream some long for.
Later, we’re able to hear a touching dedication to the artist’s newborn child on “Baby Boy.” Staying under the radar with his private life, Gambino sings a message to his seed about the gems and turmoils of relationships. “Don’t take my baby boy, my pride and joy,” he sings assumingly to a mother or even mother earth. “You say you won’t, but you will.” Stepping out his fluid sound, he tells his “child,” “There was a time before you and there will be a time after you. Know these bodies are not our own, walk tall little one.” His appreciation for the outer limits can be seen in visuals like “Telegraph Ave” and his Pharos show, where he channeled his afro-futurist spirit while dancing in a dome disguised as an ornate lighthouse.
We get to experience Gambino in his purest form on the final track, “Stand Tall.” His vocals are clear, gentle and suggestive of smiles and hope. “If you are strong, you cannot fall” is a poignant lyric for those wrapped in a whirlwind of losses, racial tension, international wars and the toxic 2016 election season. After some thorough listens, a realization strikes that it isn’t about Gambino trying to get us to look at the brighter side of things; it’s looking beyond what’s on the surface and giving that life.
Awaken serves as a healer for all of us—not just the brokenhearted—and a reminder that there’s always more to the tectonic shifts we’ve experienced. His sprinkle of excellent references is just a reminder that black boy joy and magic lies beneath our pain.