On “Me and Your Mama,” the first track off Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!, we are greeted with a twinkling of piano keys, a Funkadelic-era synth line and a female who is only in love when “…we are smoking that la-la-la.” It is sexy, it is atmospheric, and just as we take flight from the ether, here come the drums; we are woke. Stretching his vocal chords to Prince-ian heights, CG (aka Donald Glover) begs for the love that he deserves. She has a hold on him, but she’s just a tease. We ache alongside him. Soon, tranquility returns, along with the ivory stars. Did she acquiesce? Are we out of La-La-La? And after climax, where did she go? We are left alone in a refractory period. But it is short lived. AML is a concept album about sexual paranoia and violence (both emotional and physical) — a battlefield of guns and sex glands — and it goes 11 tracks deep.
One thing is clear: this isn’t the Childish Gambino of yore. Unlike past albums, AML is a deeper effort, more enriching and, well, not shitty, Finally, we can consider CG a legitimate musical persona — not just a TV star who could afford studio time. Produced by CG in collaboration with Ludwig Göransson (another expat from the sitcom world), AML is what old fogey critics used to call a “mature effort” — meaning, hey, kid, you actually know what you’re doing this time. But like all great mature efforts (QuentinTarantino’s Jackie Brown, Madonna’s Ray of Light), AML finds CG fully embracing his inspirations — not merely mimicking them. Imitation may be the greatest form of flattery, but imitation alone doesn’t make a great artist (if that were true, Rich Little would have two Oscars by now). AML is giant leap forward, as the juvenile raps/punchlines of previous records are replaced with deep-felt yearning. What was once considered merely a boner is now a throbbing bulge in big boy pants. The Childish is the father of the man.
AML is dipped in the chocolate fondue of 70s funk and soul. “Have Some Love” is a Schoolhouse Rock! tune of unity, as commissioned by Bobby Seale. Sure, we’re being asked to love one another, but never forget that the climate right now is volatile — as hot as Arizona; a state known for their less than liberal views on race. The “Boogieman” is never far behind, pointing his gun at CG’s Rising Sun (another reference to the land of John McCain and Dan Majerle?). And just when we’ve escaped those who want to wreck this thing called love, we are faced with Zombies all around us, wanting our money, wanting our soul. We are told “there is no safe place to hide.” Not in the music. Not even in the womb.
Now, daylight. The She from the opening track returns in “Redbone.” But she finds a weary-eyed CG, damaged and drained of his vital juices. There’s no time for Love, Dr. Jones. Gotta keep running. Danger is still at the door. She tries to comfort him, but he’s not falling for the bait any longer. The pride is back.
AML was recorded around the same time/place DG was working on his acclaimed TV show Atlanta. A huge misstep could’ve been made by having the individual pieces work in tandem. Hey, tune into show while listening to the album! Yeah, no thanks. Here, the DG of TV and the DG of music are separate but equal (sorry). Two works of art from the child prodigy of the internet age.
Album closer “Stand Tall” vibrates like mid-period Stevie Wonder with a dash of Sly Stone preachifying — a call to finding inner strength. “There’s a voice inside us all.” It turns out there was a voice inside CG/DG all along. And we are the better for hearing it. Like all good funk/soul music, we groove to the cries for love and compassion, the end to violence and suffering. At the end of AML, CG finds the peace he started out looking for, lifted to his feet by a chorus of beautiful, black voices. It matters not that the love he once begged for is nowhere to be found. She is gone. So be it. Peace, love and soul.