Donald Glover is having a very good year. Still basking in the afterglow from Atlanta — the sitcom-like meditation on money, respect, hip-hop, and family that he stars in, writes, and executive-produces — last Thursday he released his third full-fledged studio album as Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!” It’s a record no one could have quite predicted, and one that cements nothing so much as the artist’s inscrutability. Writing on Instagram early Friday morning, Roots drummer and hip-hop historian Questlove confessed to being so taken aback by what he heard on the album that he’d called D’Angelo at 4 a.m. to rave about it. “I thought I was getting some fresh millennial 2016 hip hop shit and I got sucker punched,” he wrote. “I was NOT expecting a trip to Detroit circa 1972 at United Sound Studios.”
Maybe we should have seen this coming. The 33-year-old Stone Mountain, Georgia, native first came to mainstream attention in 2009 thanks to his breakout role as lovable goofball Troy Barnes on NBC’s cultish meta-sitcom Community. For many, the character’s traits blended in to the actor’s image: funny, quirky, awkward, wholesome. Partway through Community‘s third season, Glover released Camp, his first label-backed album under the Gambino moniker. Camp‘s heartfelt and sometimes dextrous effort was a hit in some quarters and a flop in others, where it was dismissed as a ho-hum side project, even though the multihyphenate (actor, rapper, comedian, writer) had been performing as Gambino since at least 2008.
In 2013, Glover left Community to focus on music and develop Atlanta, which premiered in September to near-universal acclaim. The show has been lauded for a depiction of black life that thrives in the banal, giving equal attention to the odd and the quotidian. While the distinction between his music and acting projects has always been easily drawn, Atlanta — ostensibly about a rapper trying to make it in the title city — blurred this divide and made for lots of good-natured speculation. The rapper is Paper Boi, a Gucci Mane–style trap MC played by Brian Tyree Henry. Glover plays Paper Boi’s manager, Earn, a name homophonous with “Urn.” That happens to be the title of Glover’s favorite song from his last album, 2013’s Because the Internet. By Glover’s own admission, in an interview with Billboard magazine, he “never really saw [his music and Atlanta] as different things.”
At some point in late 2014, Glover scrubbed most of his social-media accounts, leaving avid Gambino fans to parse every episode for evidence of new music. Never one to tip his hand, he placed the most relevant Easter egg in the season finale: The last scene plays out to “Elevators (Me & You)” by fellow Atlantans OutKast, which features the lyric “Me and you, your mama and your cousin too.” Cue “Me and Your Mama,” the lead single off “Awaken.”
It’s also the album’s opener and standout track, set to twinkling keys and dreamy synths. The first two minutes of this six-minute opus sound like a trip through space and time — guided by a celestial chorus singing about love and getting high. Suddenly we’re brought crashing back to Earth by jagged guitar grooves and Glover’s processed vocals, delivered occasionally as unhinged screams. On “Awaken” he abandons rap completely, finding inspiration in Seventies funk-rock and impeccable choral harmonies. The album’s dense, lush soundscapes would have been an ill fit for the hyper-referential “hipster rap” of his earlier projects (where he rhymed about Tetris and Arcade Fire), but here they provide an apt platform for the delivery of astute social commentary.
“Boogieman” takes to task those who engage with black art but ignore the harsh realities of black life in America. In fact, the commodification of black culture is an ongoing theme for Glover. The cover art for “Awaken” showed up as a clever prop in “Juneteenth,” Atlanta‘s stellar ninth episode, which dealt masterfully with the theme of cultural tourism: The image — of a black woman wearing an ornate headdress and a look of distress — sits on the bookshelf of a rich white man who is obsessed with black culture and fancies himself an authority. Just as Earn protested the man’s arrogant intrusion, Glover, on the new album, lets the social critiques fly.
And just as the album’s sound evokes Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, and George Clinton, the album’s lyrics nod to the revolutionary spirit and free-love ethos of Seventies funk. “Have Some Love” calls for unity in times of hardship: “Have a word for your brother/Have some time for one another/Really love another/It’s so hard to find.” The stirring bassline comes courtesy of Ludwig Göransson — Glover’s longtime collaborator and the record’s co-producer — who is also responsible for some of the more inspired instrumentation on “Awaken” (“Redbone,” “Stand Tall.”)
“We took a step away from computers which led us to think of music more horizontally.” Göransson told the Village Voice by email. “Creatively it opened up a lot of doors and instead of thinking about what synths and plugins to use, we put our time and effort into real instruments and [thinking about] how they translate to live performances.”
“Riot” explicitly draws the line between Glover and Funkadelic by sampling the funk pioneers’ 1975 track “Good to Your Earhole.” It’s one of many high points as far as arrangements go, but the effects on Glover’s voice render his performance almost incomprehensible. It’s a shame, because Glover’s singing is strong and versatile when left untouched, from the smooth notes of “Stand Tall” (recorded in one take, according to Göransson) to the raspy tones of “Baby Boy” — on which he addresses what may or may not be his own experience of parenthood.
Similarly, “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” hints at disclosure of some intimate detail in this vein, but instead delivers over three minutes of instrumental intrigue. The album’s title, meanwhile, alludes to a passage from the Song of Solomon, in the Old Testament: “Do not arouse or awaken my love until it pleases.” The line is open to interpretation, but one reading is a caution against rushing into anything before the time is right — romance or whatever else. Glover has said little in public about his child or the newborn’s mother, as is his right, so it’s anyone’s guess as to which relationships he references throughout the album. Rather, the awakening could simply refer to the realization that he could and should take his music in a wholly unexpected direction — on his own terms.