Donald Glover is Bartholomew Cubbins.
What? Well, Cubbins was the magical character in a Dr. Seuss story who was commanded by the king to remove his hat. He did, but beneath that hat was another one, and another one. Glover keeps taking off his hats — founder of YouTube comedy team Derrick Comedy, writer for 30 Rock, cast member of Community, creator of the TV show Atlanta, and future Lando Calrissian — only to reveal another. Sometimes there are other hats within the hats he’s removed. Example: Childish Gambino, his rap star alter ego. With his latest outing, Awaken, My Love!, Glover has actually eschewed rap altogether for a wonderfully greasy ’70s-style funk album.
Never mind the added atmosphere from vinyl crackle that undergirds pretty much the entire album, there is a level of authentic love for, and adherence to, the bands from the era, most prominently Parliament-Funkadelic. Produced by Glover and Ludwig Göransson, the record nods in Eddie Hazel, Fuzzy Haskins, and George Clinton’s direction with samples of “Good To Your Earhole” running through “Riot.” That track also spiritually ties itself to the social conscience of Sly And The Family Stone, so there are plenty of credible ancestors moving in the background of this CD. Throughout the recording we’re treated to the “gospel choir on acid” style of group vocal harmonies that was a key hook for P-Funk.
No high-profile samples were employed in the CD’s best track “Boogieman” which, oddly enough, is even more P-Funk than the song with the P-Funk sample. It’s also the most controversial. I’m probably not the right person to parse the message, but to these ears the statement is: “Black people are good enough for you when you want to be entertained, want a joke to laugh at or a song to groove to, or you want the winning point scored. But out in the real world of driving cars, walking around streets and riding elevators, we’re guilty before proven innocent. We’re above reproach when it suits you, and it suits you very infrequently. Some people get shot for doing the crime. Some people get shot because some people think they did the crime. How is that fair in any culture?”
That statement is easy to miss if you just slide into the song, but you shouldn’t let it pass you by. Nor should you discount the external joys of “Boogieman” itself. It’s a great funk track and, like the best of them, has something to say.
Another highlight is Gary Clark Jr.’s contribution to “The Night Me And Your Mama Met,” adding a new layer to the combination that Glover and Göransson have concocted. But here’s the question: who will this album reach? Having revealed his many hats, Childish Gambino is in the difficult position of not being able to address any particular expectation directly. Awaken, My Love! bears little to no resemblance to the previous Because The Internet, and likewise isn’t at all similar to his pop-heavy-leaning mixtape Kauai either. Glover is dead serious in his intentions to whip up a real funk album, so anyone who might be predisposed to think this is somehow disingenuous needs to try again.
Put it this way: I wasn’t expecting to buy the album. Glover’s previous efforts were intriguing and he put his full effort into them, but I never saw myself actually buying the records. Awaken, My Love! is different. It doesn’t attempt to mimic the great funk of the late-’60s and ’70s but, instead, wants to be counted among them — impossible through the passage of time, but you’d be hard pressed to say everyone who worked on this record wasn’t aiming for the Mothership. Maybe all one needs to do is look past Glover’s multitude of hats and listen to it. You’ll be impressed. You’ll probably be swayed. What you won’t be doing is second-guessing a talent that, apparently, can do anything he sets his mind to, in spite of whatever headwear he’s sporting at the moment.