Monday, December 5, 2016

album review: "awaken, my love!" by childish gambino

I feel like I have a complicated relationship with Childish Gambino.

Hell, I get the feeling a lot of critics do, mostly because it's so damn rare to see an artist leap so fully formed and relentlessly talented across genres and indeed entire mediums. Whether you know him from his comedy sketches to his writing work on 30 Rock to the cult classic Community to his soon-to-be classic show Atlanta, he's a man of extraordinary talent, and that's before we get to his stand-up or his work as a musician and songwriter. 

But if I'm also being brutally honest, I feel I should like his music a lot more than I do. The odd blend of styles and production - most outside of his mixtapes which are done in-house with producer Ludwig Goransson - that are present in his music often juxtapose with lyrics that often feel intensely personal or eclectic. There's an defined artistic style and voice that's always been present, that will then veer in unexpected directions made from a pastiche of indie music, southern hip-hop, and bizarre pop culture references, all amidst a creative mind that's incredibly ambitious but also painfully self-aware. Relistening to his debut Camp and his much-lauded follow-up Because The Internet will give you plenty of evidence why Childish Gambino is a compelling presence behind the microphone as a charismatic rapper and singer... but between his cartoonish exaggerations that occasionally slide towards campiness, often masking deeper wells of rage and self-loathing, and a genuine feeling of earnestness that can either hit transcendence or deeply felt awkwardness, he comes across as the sort of precocious yet driven creator who is not afraid to aim high, overshare, hit big and miss hard. And those sorts of chances and effort are inspiring and powerful stuff, something I can relate to on a certain level - I just wish his aesthetic and craftsmanship of his sound and narratives worked better for me.

And that was my big concern going into "Awaken, My Love!" - mostly because while I admired his lead-off singles, I didn't love the sound or artistic choices. But again, I was only seeing fragments of the story, I had to hope the whole project - his shortest in some time - would have the focus and clarity to work - was I right?

Okay, I have to be honest: this album was a really hard one to crack. Reviewing any Childish Gambino record is always a heavily involved affair, but this one was a doozie, especially considering he almost completely left hip-hop behind for a blend of funk, soul, blues rock and R&B, the sort of genre-bending that left me frustrated and confused with the lead-off singles and a little nervous that I would be left not able to like his newest album as much as I'd like. And then, at about a dozen listens in, it clicked, thanks to a coincidental listen through another record that's not even in the same genre and yet shares a stunning number of parallels with this. Now it's not as good as that other record - in fact, there's a part of me that's still not quite sure where I fall on this album as a whole, it's a bizarre listen - but I understand it, and with that knowledge I can appreciate it a hell of a lot more.

So let's start off with Childish Gambino himself... and wow, I can his delivery and performance here being divisive, and not just because he's not rapping. If you were fond of his more restrained singing voice that cropped up on previous records... well, the most you'll see of that are moments, most prominently on 'Stand Tall', because the contortions he puts his vocals through are something to behold. His howling on 'Me And Your Mama' and 'Riot' is raw to the point of sounding painful, his almost comical exaggerated emphasis on 'Zombies' - complete with autotune - and then you add in the autotuned mumble-croon of 'California' and the languid crooning of 'Terrified'. And that's not counting points like the Funkadelic-inspired multi-tracking of the hook of 'Have Some Love' which contrasts his oddly swallowed vocals on the verses, the blend of croaking howls, squeals, twisted sneers and warped overdubs on 'Boogieman', and the obvious Sly & The Family Stone influence on 'Baby Boy'. It is one hell of a performance, and that's before he swamps his voice in reverb, shifts it up a semitone for an entire song on 'Redbone', and adds all sorts of warping filter and effects to match a female backing choir that doesn't seem to fall as soulful, gospel, or symphonic. It's defiantly what you would expect from Childish Gambino's lyrics now mirrored in his delivery - wild, eccentric, with a few too many points going for comic exaggeration rather than relying on the words to deliver their message, it's not a record that seems to have a lot of subtlety.

So do the lyrics support him? Well, at first glimpse it's an odd mix, not exactly helped by Gambino's tragi-comic persona that seems to warp and contort through these songs. And while the abandonment of rap means he doesn't have the same stream of cheesy punchlines, there are some writing choices that border on camp at least. I actually really liked 'Boogieman', with Gambino embracing elements of black stereotypes - witch doctors and gangstas and the boogieman in the dark - in order to protect someone, all with the uncomfortable truth in the second verse that so long as they fear him he'll never be truly free, but 'Zombies' runs into awkward territory, as obvious parallels to those who eat off your fame with no real brain... and they're played by Kari Faux. Yep, this is where we step into Gambino's warped relationships with women, and while you can tell the framing doesn't flatter him, you get songs like 'California', where the girl wants to move to California to market her pseudo-fame on Vine and he's dismissive of it, or 'Terrified', when he embodies the creeping fears on 'Redbone' into more literal territory, as he seems to stalk this girl to wind her back into his web... until the outro from the girl sung by JD McCrary, where she seems scared at first but the words are 'You can't hide from me'.

So what's the real fear that underscores and underlines so much of this record? That only snapped into focus when I listened to nothing else but A Sailor's Guide To Earth by Sturgill Simpson, a country record that also ventured into other genres like rock and soul... and just like "Awaken, My Love!", it's about fatherhood. What you might not know is that Donald Glover recently had a baby with his girlfriend earlier this year, and that snaps songs like 'Me And Your Mama' into a different focus, with 'your' now referring to that of his infant son. It gives the black empowerment subtext an emotional core that works on 'Riot' and 'Have Some Love', it gives the fear on 'Baby Boy' where he knows his relationship with the mother will probably fade but he doesn't want to lose his son some real dramatic weight, and it gives the message of hope on 'Stand Tall' greater strength. Furthermore, it also places the more cartoonish elements in context - to a child's point-of-view, the broad strokes would likely have that deeper resonance, from the nursery box melodies and cooing backing vocals to the deeper cackle that might as well be imported from a Disney movie. 

But for as much as that can excuse a lot, it doesn't excuse my biggest frustration with this record: the production. I've always thought Ludwig Goransson's arrangements and tonal choices were good in terms of composition, but lack texture and grit... and yeah, if we're looking for my biggest issue with this album, it would be that. And what's exasperating is, again, it's not entirely consistent - I dug how the organ, bass, and percussion was balanced on 'Have Some Love' and 'Riot', but as soon as we get to 'Boogieman', I'm left thinking that if that guitar didn't feel so weedy and has a little more grit and distortion and volume to balance the rest of the funk tones in the bass and cleaner vocals, a great song could have been truly amazing. Similar case for 'Zombies', which intentionally plays sillier with the watery pianos and guitar, major chords, and cheesy synths, but it could have played for real 80s R&B horror tones like off of 'Thriller' or 'Somebody's Watching Me' and it would have killed - hell, 'Terrified' does something like that with the very low tones, drippy effects, ghostly synths, weedy organ, flattened guitar, and xylophone and it works far better! Hell, even though that vocal filter still drives me crazy I think I've finally come around on 'Redbone' courtesy of some great funk tightness in the bass and a solid hook. 'California' has similar problems to 'Zombies' - the sandy reggae vibe and good bass is undercut by the goofier effects, farty synth, gutless pan flute, and a guitar that has no depth or real bite. 'Baby Boy' is similarly frustrating: I like the bassline, I like the melody, but that organ is not blended in a way so it doesn't come across chintzy as hell... which it does, which gets frustrating when you actually get depth and balance with the harmonized vocals and guitar on the very next song, or with the gentle funk in the guitars on 'Stand Tall' that then transitions into woodwinds... which could have had organic presence if Gambino didn't pile on the autotune to then transition into blocky synths before a really abrupt ending.

But again, that makes sense coming from Childish Gambino - while this album doesn't feel as fragmented and scattershot as previous records, that slightly chaotic and off-kilter edge is as present as always, and it leads to a record that I'm happy I understand even if aesthetic choices just don't click for me. As such, I'm giving this album a very strong 7/10, but I'm not sure how I can recommend it, because if you expect hip-hop going in you're not going to get it. It's broad, occasionally cartoonish, very occasionally hits some potent emotional moments, and yet I can't help but feel that Childish Gambino is still getting in his own way a little too much. Still, it's a fascinating listen and Gambino is so ridiculously talented that he's bound to strike gold for me eventually, so check this out if you're curious and in the mean time... well, we'll see what happens.

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