Graded on a Curve: Childish Gambino,
“Awaken, My Love!”

Sometimes the funkiest move forward is to fix one’s gaze firmly upon the past. And so it goes with Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover), the hip hop/comedy prodigy who goes flat-out old school on his latest LP, 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!” It mixes psychedelic funk with hard-core soul and R&B, and the results are positively ear awakening. On “Awaken, My Love!” Gambino looks backwards to Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, and the like, and with the able assistance of long-time collaborator Ludwig Göransson he produces some of the funkiest sounds to come our way in years.

A few critics have accused Gambino of mimicry or even parody—one went so far to call the album “a maddening ride with an authenticity problem.” But whether you call it pastiche or parody, I say bring the noise. Glover’s love for the era he’s celebrating is obvious, and he brings real passion and a sly sense of humor to the task. “Redbone” is the best slow R&B groove I’ve heard in ages, bar none—a slinky and seductive crooner and screamer that I dare you to resist, especially when you lay Göransson’s snaky synth lines on top. And at the opposite end of the spectrum we have “Riot,” the most positively exciting Funkadelic track Funkadelic never recorded. And don’t even get me started on “Boogieman,” a plea for racial tolerance that melds the best of Funkadelic and seventies disco and simply won’t stop.

Gambino the hip hopper’s singing is a revelation—who’d have thunk there was a bona fide soul man behind the comedic rapper? But croon he can and croon he does, and not just on the ultimate crooner “Redbone.” And he can get downright animated as well, as he proves on the rockabye slow jam turned hard funk masterpiece “Me and Your Mama.” He sounds anguished, he screams—there isn’t a damn thing he can’t do with those amazing vocal chords of his. And he shows us his soft side on the lovely “Baby Boy,” which is fueled by some wonderful keyboards, Lynette William’s B3 organ in particular.

The “love your brother” message of “Have Some Love” resonates thanks to Gambino’s punch-drunk vocals and the formidable contribution of Brent Jones and the Best Life Singers. Gambino also delivers up a unique vocal approach on the flute-powered and very ear-friendly “California”—he doesn’t sing so much as percolate, and it’s a wonder to behold. Meanwhile, Gary Clark Jr. contributes some very psychedelic guitar to the otherwise laid-back (and mostly instrumental) “The Night Me and Your Mama Went.” Groovy!

The LP isn’t perfect; closing track “Stand Tall” evokes Stevie Wonder, but Stevie Wonder at his most MOR—it’s too pretty for its own good in my opinion, but if you like ‘em sugary sweet, this could just be your baby. And “Zombies” reminds me too much of “Thriller.” Glover sounds overheated but he doesn’t sound like he’s going for camp, when that might be the only way to pull this salute to the undead off. Or maybe it does work; I’m still processing this one, to be honest. As for “Terrified” it leaves me relatively cold, but I might one day come around on it too. But even if “Awaken, My Love!” isn’t perfect, it still deserves a perfect score; call it an A for Ambition if you will.

Donald Glover is one of those people who infuriate you because they perfectly demonstrate the imperfect way talent is distributed in this life. He has so much going on on so many fronts it’s mind-boggling. On “Awaken, My Love!” Glover adds funky soul man extraordinaire to his resume, and contributes what may be the most glorious salute to seventies funk and R&B ever recorded to popular culture. The horrible truth is I’m jealous. Nobody this side of Prince should be this gifted. That said, I can’t wait to hear what Glover has in store for us next. The man’s evolving at an amazing speed—an album of Dylanesque protest songs maybe?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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