Have you started Christmas shopping?
I haven’t started Christmas shopping…
I’ll do it tomorrow…there’s still 19 days until Christmas….
Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
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.
Must-haves: “Me And Your Mama” // “California” // “Stand Tall”
John Legend – Darkness & Light
It’s been quite sometime since R&B/Gospel singer-songwriter John Legend has put out a decent album. His 2004 debut Get Lifted still warrants revisiting every so often, and his sophomore Once Again has some of my favourite tracks from his discography. But for some reason, he decided to ditch the piano-voice combo for his 2008 album Evolver, and then was ridden with pop-fever on his 2013 Kanye West-produced album Love in the Future. His collaboration with The Roots on the 2010 record Wake Up! was a welcomed hint at his signature sound…but still, it has been quite some time since a true John Legend album was released.
With Darkness and Light, John Legend tries his best to hit the reset button, but still falls short. Although he finds himself away from the piano for the majority of the record, there are still moments on the album that work.
Legend’s powerful and soulful gospel voice chimes in early, with the passionate opener “I Know Better” serving as a refreshing beginning. Flowing into the bubbling R&B single “Penthouse Floor”, the track has a familiar feeling, featuring Chance the Rapper mirroring Kanye West’s appearance on Get Lifted – although Chance’s feature was minimal and just a name drop at best.
Instead, an exciting and noteworthy feature is Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard on the title track “Darkness and Light”. Howard’s rich, booming voice helps to bring out the best of John Legend, as he reaches to her level for an exciting and lively duet – and no surprise, it’s one of the best songs on the album.
Of course, including a few pop tracks was an inevitable component to the record. “Overload” featuring Miguel, the lead single/chart-topping hit “Love Me Now”, “Surfire”, and the electro-pop tune “What You Do To Me”, (which was produced by BloodPop, who has worked with Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga on handfuls of tracks) are a flinching, radio-friendly batch of tracks to add market appeal to the record.
Aside from the bump in the middle, “Right By You ” helps to recalibrate with its piano-jazz ambience, and slow-burning love song vibrance. The remainder of the album seems to slow down and mix electronic influences into his soulful R&B sound. “Temporarily Painless” and ‘How Can I Blame You” share a subtle nu-R&B vibe, while “Same Old Story” experiments with stereo-recording, as it wobbles in and out of the speakers. Written alongside Tobias Jesso Jr., “Same Old Story” captures Legend’s ability to softly fill the space with passion, and incorporates complimentary sounds and textures to take the track to new heights. Layering guitars, vocals, percussion, and keys together, “Marching into the Dark” brings the album to a close with a busy sensation of musicality and spirit.
Although not his best album overall, there are certainly noteworthy highlights on the record that show how much John Legend has truly matured over his career. His comprise with pop music, while still holding onto his powerful gospel soul, leaves room for an evolving third party to experiment with; in this case the modern trend of electronica. Fortunately, Legend trusts his music enough to grace the track list with his “signature sound” for long-time fans.
Must-haves: “I Know Better” // “Darkness and Light” // “Same Old Story”