Childish Gambino Plays The ’70s

Donald Glover’s ‘Awaken, My Love!’ is a period piece with infrequent original soul

Besides the person, the quality that conjoins Donald Glover, the actor and writer, and Childish Gambino, his musician name, has been an unremitting belief that process counts as an artist’s statement. The ideology of comedy in the past decade supported his stance; when writing for NBC’s 30 Rock and then acting on the network’s Community, Glover pursued the meta-referential, using devices like the broken fourth wall as the means while less concerned with an end.

Childish Gambino, too, treated theory as actual inspiration — a way to work out, as Glover saw it, the oppressive problem of authenticity in rap. His pseudonym was famously the product of a Wu-Tang Clan name generator site. He mined racial assumptions from black and white listeners alike before they were even made. The first Gambino album, 2011’s Camp, was more an argument that he had the right to make music than a musical statement itself. “The only white rapper who’s allowed to say the n-word,” he rapped on “Backpackers.” Because the Internet, released in 2013, was an improvement, but throughout the tracks Gambino was still tangled up in origin stories, not plans for the future.

On “Awaken, My Love!”, Glover’s future has possibly arrived, sounding staggeringly like someone else’s past. It comes looking like it, too — the moonlight-colored album art, of an alternative, black female Venus emerging from the earth in a primal scream, is a reboot of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain. There’s little information suggesting Glover will continue down the album’s Brain-hewn course, because Gambino has not shown us how he got here. Rather, “Awaken, My Love!”, an album with the bones and not the heart of recapitulated funk, comes fully packaged, fully aestheticized, fully derivative, as if the result of another internet-generated code.

In the case of Glover’s other 2016 creation, FX’s Atlanta, Glover’s burst of sophistication seems like an amalgamation of his personal history and his influences. Glover grew up in the suburbs of the city. For him, Louis C.K. could be a mentor-contemporary, and meandering, urban-paced shows like High Maintenance provide a template. The isolated familiarity on “Awaken, My Love!” is proof of Glover’s love of concept; his motivation to create a raging facsimile of one adventurous musical era is unusual. For all the implied comparisons to André 3000’s The Love Below, a schismatic experiment in vocals and a flirtation against rap conservatism, an absence of history separates them. The work that André had already done on ATLiens justified his later leap. Three Stacks refrained from rapping on The Love Below so that we could hear how scratchy and cosmic his singing voice could be in opposition to Big Boi’s.

On “Awaken, My Love!”, Glover’s singing voice is George Clinton, Harry Nilsson, Bootsy Collins. The 11 tracks are more than listenable — each, with the exception of the cloying “California,” is actually pleasurable. But try playing “Redbone,” which Glover released a week before the album came out on Glassnote Records, concurrently with Bootsy’s Rubber Band’s “I’d Rather Be With You.” Glover’s impression is multileveled — from the prodding funk instrumentation, to the drawl-singing, to the aching, bawdy lyrics. The songs align alarmingly. Similarly, the slack-jawed over-enunciation of “California,” a vexingly “beach”-oriented track, is unabashed Nilsson, pitched up high.

Sampling, it should be said, warrants constant defense as an honorable act, one that instantaneously places any given moment in a cultural genealogy. The same goes for inspiration, which solicits a decade or a genre, as opposed to one specific song. (Was Ol’ Dirty Bastard a reincarnation of Clinton, for example?) This is something that Bruno Mars does winkingly well. Mars’s 24K Magic is a contemporary analogue to Glover’s exercise in ’70s homage. Mars tempers his reflexive retro-mania with modern quirks and individual charisma. He’s created a small but hardy glossary of personalized funk materials, like Outkast did in the early 2000s and Clinton did in the inaugural decade. Clothes, dance, videos, visuals, psychedelia, and the forsaken idea of a destructive-but-enticing lifestyle swagger are all as integral to the sound as instruments. Glover, who has barely spoken about the genesis of this album, has only convinced us that he’s got the latter.

On “Me and Your Mama,” it feels like Eddie Hazel, Parliament-Funkadelic’s original guitarist, has floated down to back Glover’s lovelorn hollers. Glover is most revelatory there, coating a canonical strain of funk with his authentic voice. “Awaken, My Love!” is stacked with impressive, accretive instrumentals. They just don’t add up to something newer, or greater, than the source materials. An artist as multitalented as Glover should seek to exceed history’s great men, or to target them with more than the waning originality of songs like “Riot” or “The Night Me and Your Mama Met.” But knowing him, troubling the worth of originality is probably one of the album’s underlying theses.

Moments of variation from the P-Funk bible surface, albeit fleetingly. The reverential “Stand Tall” closes the album, and Glover’s sweet singing is satisfying. Same for “Baby Boy,” a letter to Glover’s son. The introduction of briefly Auto-Tuned vocals on “Zombies” appears to be the instinct of a veritable musician, but the new idea disappears as soon as we hear it. “We’re eating you for profit,” a ghosty girl-choir sings behind him, a refreshingly black-power-cum-millennial lyric for such a cinematically retrograde track. The recognizable dialogue of blaxploitation films is everywhere on Awaken, and that recycling, casting merry sleaziness into elegance, is inspired. Stereotypical black family drama is mined, too; the conceit of a terrorizing mother, that of his girlfriend, appears more than a few times. Glover transmits the dark glow of the funk era, an Afrofuturist underside that preserves the dead over the living, on “Zombies,” “Boogieman,” and “Terrified.” Accompanied by a soft organ, the last minute of “Terrified” is the most sublime on the album. JD McCrary, a young singer with baby Michael Jackson’s genderless tone, moans, “You can’t run away from me / You can’t hide.”

Ultimately what’s missing from “Awaken, My Love!” is more people. Part of why the McCrary feature resonates past the end of “Terrified” is because it sounds like Glover has finally relinquished his creative jurisdiction — something that he does with generosity on Atlanta. The sub-elements of funk on “Awaken, My Love!” have an air of uncanny replication — eroticism, paranoia, leeriness, the cosmic — but the effect is coated with a patina of practice. There is no country for sterility within funk music. We have to smell it, to taste it, to watch secretions ooze out of the planet created for us. Glover has an opportunity, now, to create videos that might extricate the songs on “Awaken, My Love!” from the synthetic. He’s proved himself before; we owe it to him to find out.