‘Awaken, My Love’, a failed attempt

Awaken, My Love, a failed attempt

Cam Fuller

On Thursday night, Donald Glover—as Childish Gambino—released a ‘community theater’ production of a funk album. It’s called “Awaken, My Love!” and if we take the artist at his word, this is an earnest offering. Glover explained to Billboard that these 11 songs are “an exercise in just feeling and tone.”
The lyrics, sung by Glover in as many voices as there are tracks, gesture broadly at the topics of parenthood, white fear of blackness, and the complexity of love. The album tries to replicate the hard hitting works of esteemed artists such as D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar, but both of them put out their finest political art after years spent sharpening their abilities in their respective genres. D’Angelo didn’t suddenly try to fit his protest  music into the context of a disco album.
Glover also referred to his new project as “a shared vibration for human progress.” It’s possible to roll your eyes at an artist’s articulated intentions and marvel at the finished work all the same, and that would’ve been the best case scenario here. Instead, “Awaken, My Love!” is a miscalculation, an anti climactic coda to a year that saw him making the best, most vital work of his career with the TV series Atlanta.
The influence of Funkadelic, the ‘70s jam band that reshaped rock and funk, is unmistakable on “Awaken, My Love!” The choruses of earthy voices, the tangled guitar riffs, the jammy outros and intros. Other songs like “Redbone,” arguably the best song on the album, is reminiscent of Bootsy Collins’ gem “I’d Rather Be With You.” You can hear OutKast, too—“Baby Boy,” one of the other standouts, which all goes to show that Glover proudly shows off his influences, but to a fault. After a while one might ask whether this is truly a Childish Gambino original or a cover album cop out. (Compare ‘Kast’s delivery of “Don’t go away” to Glover’s “Don’t take my.”)
Glover realizes he doesn’t have the same amount of dignity as D’Angelo, so you have to wonder at his decision to play it utterly straight on “Awaken, My Love!” It’s as if he’s convinced his sincere sentiment is enough. But sincerity alone isn’t an end in itself; you need to have something interesting to say.
Why not bring some levity to funk in 2016? Bruno Mars has been doing it on his recent album of retro R&B, 24K Magic. Anderson .Paak and producer Knxledge’s Yes Lawd! embellishes the tropes of ‘70s soul to great effect; you laugh and smile while listening to it. And of course the classic Parliament and Funkadelic albums are as silly and weirdly spectacular as they are serious.
Glover forgot something on “Awaken, My Love!” The album should have an asterisk next to it in his discography, indicating that it was an interesting experiment that didn’t pan out. You’ve set yourself up to fail if the contemporary album you send your listeners reaching for to make a comparison is Black Messiah. Glover’s voice isn’t strong enough, his songwriting isn’t as deeply felt—in fact, it’s often banal—and his band doesn’t have the chops.
“California,” the vaguely tropical number that follows “Redbone,” is one of the most immediately irritating songs of the year. The inscrutable accent Glover adopts sounds like the most theatrical moments of Nilsson’s successful novelty song “Coconut.” On “Zombies,” he sings like how the box art for Count Chocula cereal looks.
The album is practically an exercise in camp, and it buckles under the weight of so much confounding artifice. Glover never, ever winks.