Donald Glover ditches the rapping, winds up with the best (musical) work of his career.
Maybe Donald Glover was never meant to rap. He did choose his stage name via a Wu Tang Clan name generator, after all. His recent show "Atlanta" was (tangentially) about a rapper's come-up, but he forewent the "8 Mile" approach, casting himself as Paperboi's cousin and manager. Although earnest in his outings under the Childish Gambino moniker, and decidedly not "comedy rap," Glover's musical persona always seemed like less of a natural fit than the roles he assumed as a comedian, writer, and actor. His work on "30 Rock" and "Atlanta" is self-assured and crosses cultural boundaries with ease, unlike his rapping, which often sounded uncomfortable and only resonated with a niche group of fans. Gambino's closest parallel in Glover's film work is "Community," a show with a fiercely devoted cult following responsible for resurrecting it for a sixth season after NBC cancelled it due to low ratings.
2011's Camp and 2013's Because The Internet fared respectively well in terms of sales-- with just under 250k and one million copies sold, respectively-- but outside of fans' control, they also faltered in the ratings department, with both Metacritic scores landing below 70/100. You can't "cancel" a rapper, and luckily for Gambino, he's signed to indie label Glassnote, where BTI is their best-selling album by an artist not named Mumford & Sons. But for a man of such clear intelligence, writing skill, and artistic savvy, Glover's musical exploits never seemed to fire on all cylinders. His last album made marked improvements on Camp's juvenile punchline rap, but its ambition outstripped its execution, resulting in a muddled, unfocused listen. Its biggest strength was on the musical side of things, where Glover and his right-hand man Ludwig Goransson (who composed for "Community") added considerable depth and proggish elements to fit the album's narrative structure. Their success experimenting with a wider range of sounds seems to have emboldened them to pursue styles even further afield from your standard rap track.
Awaken, My Love! is a psychedelic soul/funk album, straight up. There's no rapping, unless you count whatever Glover's doing on the verses of "California" (and considering how that track stands out like a sore thumb on an otherwise-pretty-good album, we'll pretend like it doesn't exist). Instead, it's an album that meanders between tranquil choirs and throat-shredding screams, between extraterrestrial synths and fuzzed-out electric guitar, between in-the-pocket grooves and barely-there, quiet storm-style drumming. Every sound, save for Glover's vocal manipulation on a few tracks, could've been recorded in 1971. It takes cues from Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, The Isley Brothers, maybe even some Shuggie Otis, but its biggest inspiration is undeniably Funkadelic. Ever since it began streaming last week, AML has earned comparison after comparison to George Clinton and Co's titanic '71 release Maggot Brain, and we can't say they're not apt. The sung arrangements recall the group's gang vocals, the guitar tone is a dead ringer for Eddie Hazel's incendiary leads, "Have Some Love" sounds similar to "Can You Get To That" until the lazily-strummed acoustic guitar kicks in halfway through, at which point it becomes a dead ringer. Hell, even the artwork resembles the album's iconic cover.
Indeed, Glover cited Maggot Brain as one of his "favorites ever" back in 2013, and thusly, there's plenty of moments when it feels like he's trying to live out a fantasy of recreating it. That's Awaken, My Love's biggest weakness-- that Glover and Goransson set out to mimic elements of Maggot Brain without bringing anything new to the table. They ultimately fall short of Funkadelic's ambition and instrumental prowess, not just because they lack a guitarist who could carve out their own equivalent to Maggot Brain's legendary title track, but because these guys simply don't have experience making music like this. Glover's taste encompasses that era of music, as was clear in the "Atlanta" soundtrack, and as a composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, Goransson's got the chops necessary to play most genres that exist under the sun. But by the time '71 rolled around, Funkadelic already had several years of experience and two albums under their belt, not to mention that funk/soul were the only styles they were committed to playing. You can't just summon a musical machine that's that well-oiled out of thin air.
Thankfully, though, updating one of his favorite albums of all time is far from the only item on Glover's agenda. With the lack of rapping, he's writing far fewer words per album, but what's there is generally sharper and more revelatory than his previous lyrics. In just a few words, "Boogieman" deftly illustrates police violence and the black-phobia many white Americans still have, "Zombies" dispenses with yes men and hangers-on more adeptly than Clipse's "Mr. Me Too," and the last few songs serve as touching inspirations to Glover's newborn son amid a chaotic world. With this broadening of scope and shrinking of narrative excess, it's hard to think of any other rapper who's found richer benefits in a "less is more" approach. Glover's ambition shows through in whatever he says these days-- he doesn't have to concoct a 76 page script to inspire a good album, he just has to look around himself and boil down his observations into a few well-chosen words.
Now, I'm usually the first to rave about samples and lament their decline in hip hop, but I think the best illustration of how far Childish Gambino's come is this: in six years, he's gone from sampling a song by indie pop duo Sleigh Bells to reimagining a song that Sleigh Bells sampled themselves. He used to get by on kitsch, well-read-but-juvenile lyrics (my guy really said "E.E. Cumming on her face"), and indie kid cool; now he's using a classic album as a jumping-off point for creating lush, retro music that takes stock of the problems and triumphs in his life. Awaken, My Love! is not nearly as genius as "Atlanta," but with both of those dominating TV and music conversations this fall, it's safe to say that 2016 was one hell of a year for Glover. Here's to many more that continue to rock our expectations of one of the world's brightest, most creative minds.