Alright, forget everything you know about hip-hop for a second – and especially forget Childish Gambino’s 2011 record Camp and 2013’s Because the Internet. This is by no means a follow-up to either of his previous releases; even his handful of mixtapes and releases in-between have no real connection to Awaken, My Love!.
Instead, Awaken, My Love! is an experimentation from Donald Glover as he explores the ’70s, and their legacy of funk and psychedelic music. And for many Gambino fans, it is an extremely polarizing release. Some find it bland and disorientating, others creative and progressive. I personally find it refreshing, especially since there has been this sudden surge in the last few years of rebranding of ’70s and ’80s funk, and Glover does his part to do something different.
The opening track and lead single “Me and Your Mama” was the spark for the record, building the hype and anticipation for the release date. It’s undeniable link to the ’70s embraced the progressive sounds of Pink Floyd, experimental-era Beatles, and King Crimson, while holding onto a soulful energy from Glover as he sings, with retro effects and distortion giving his voice a vintage feel. It sections off with funk, rock, soul, and R&B for just over six minutes, giving a solid illustration of what’s to come.
The gated percussion, washed out guitars, and groovy bass lines are the foundation for the majority of the tracks on Awaken, which help to genuinely capture the style of the ’70s; “Boogieman”, “Riot”, and “Stand Tall” are especially retro-focused tracks.
One obvious aspect of Glover’s experimentation on the record is his voice and the changing effects and distortion. He’s completely ditched rapping on the record, and has switched over to singing and its flexibility and potential. Tweaking his voice, Glover sounds identical to New Zealand psych-funk revival act Unknown Mortal Orchestra on “Redbone”, with the slow-burning funk melody leading the way. “Have Some Love” has him almost cringing with his words, and all the way licked by some distortion and layering on the verses. You eventually hear his true voice for the chorus on the gospel/funk-pop tune, and a few other times on the record, most notably with the eccentric album closer “Stand Tall”, where Glover belts out a few lines to put the cherry on top of the record.
Not to hold back from the energy and spirit of funk and soul, “Boogieman”, “Riot”, and “California” definitely touch closer to the “pop” end of the spectrum in relation to the rest of the album, which is definitely more progressive and experimental. Those three tracks rely more noticeably on a hook and a single melody, and use that to build on the song’s energy. And with “Boogieman”, you are transported back to the early ’70s, with funky rhythms and backing vocalists to add to the aesthetic.
With enough wah-wah effects to go around, and glistening nostalgia of the early days of funk and soul, Awaken, My Love! sounds like a record you’d find in your parents’ dusty vinyl collection, but somehow from the future. Glover not only stepped out of his comfort zone and created a record he wanted to create, but did a fine, good job at it.