When I first heard Childish Gambino, I didn’t know the guy performing was also the guy who played Troy on Community, Donald Glover. Even after I learned that they were the same person when I saw Donald Glover in cutoff jorts belting out “Heartbeat” on the mainstage at Coachella, it was difficult to reconcile these two very different personas.
Eventually, I got used to it. Kind of. It still felt like two different people, but I just slowly got more accustomed to the awkwardness of it. Sure, it felt like somebody with his brains and wit would aspire to something more than dissecting interpersonal drama and ego masturbation. The music felt right, but the delivery was a bit off. I had a hard time believing that would be enough.
When his new album was announced, I assumed it would be more of the same. But the first time I heard the lead single, “Redbone,” I forgot it was him. I forgot I was listening at all and moved on. Two songs later, I knew I hadn’t heard anything remotely hip-hop, and figured I must have skipped the song. So I went back and played it again. The same thing happened, but I kind of came to at the end. Where was the Childish Gambino song? One more time, I hit play and watched my phone queue up to the beginning of the track, the artwork loaded with the title and artist name below it.
Was he playing with the Isley Brothers? Was he covering some 70’s soul song I hadn’t heard? At around the two-minute mark, I figured he was overdue to drop in on top of this sample, but the rapping Childish Gambino never showed up. It was just a guy with a much smaller sounding voice in a soft falsetto, almost pleading to the listener. At some point, I realized it was him, but it still took until the end of the song to kill that expectation of the loudmouth hip-hop emcee showing up. What the hell did I just listen to?
It was intriguing and good enough to throw on a playlist so I could hear it more, and it was enough to prompt me to listen to the album straight away when it came out. The rest is thankfully more of the same, more 70’s R&B and Soul, blending the social and cultural consciousness of Marvin Gaye and the funk of Prince.
Once I got my head wrapped around his significant change in musical style, I still found myself shocked at points when a sweet, soft song like “Me and Your Mama” swiftly dips into an almost Black Sabbath drop and climbs back through psychedelic guitar rock mixed with gospel. It’s breathtaking.
I’m a white guy who grew up in the Minnesota suburbs, and there were about a dozen people of color in my high school class of about 400. Some things are not my place to say and there are a lot of experiences I must learn about and live in whatever way I can through the lenses offered by the people in those experiences. What I’ll say about ‘Awaken, My Love’ is that it sounds black, because it sounds black in the same way as Parliament and Curtis Mayfield and the Ohio Players. It does not feel like he sat down and decided to go retro. It may be novel, but that feels like it is more of an artifact of the process than the album’s focus.
The sudden change seems to have pushed Donald Glover into what I feel is more meaningful territory in a time where this kind of awakening change and enlightenment is all too crucial. When the world feels like it is falling apart, when stability feels threatened and our futures bleak, it is people like Donald Glover that we need to hold us up and music like ‘Awaken, My Love’ to bring us together.
This Sunday, evaluate your output, your message, and whether there are changes you can make that will elevate the lives around you along with you, rather than them providing the means to elevate yourself.