On Thursday night, Donald Glover—as Childish Gambino—released a community theater production of a funk album.
It’s called “Awaken, My Love!” (all punctuation is Glover’s), 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 in the direction of parenthood, white fear of blackness, and the complexity of love, romantic and brotherly. The album sounds like it wants to do some of the hard, sincere work of artists like 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 debuted songs from “Awaken, My Love!” at a multi-day musical event he dubbed Pharos at Joshua Tree in California. He referred to it as “a shared vibration for human progress.” He told Billboard that he’d been pondering the contemporary moment, specifically, “How do you start a global revolution, really? Is that possible with the systems we’ve set up?”
It’s possible to roll your eyes at an artist’s articulated intentions and marvel at the finished work all the same. That would’ve been the best case scenario here. Instead, “Awaken, My Love!” is a miscalculation, an anticlimactic coda to a year that saw him making the best, most vital work of his career with the TV series Atlanta. In the Billboard interview, he mentioned Funkadelic by name when explaining the roots of this new project, and said, “There’s something about that ’70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution.”
The influence of Funkadelic, and its offspring, is unmistakable on “Awaken, My Love!” The choruses of earthy voices, the knotted guitar riffs, the jammy outros and intros. “Redbone,” the best song here, is reminiscent of Bootsy Collins’ gem “I’d Rather Be With You.” You can hear OutKast, too—“Baby Boy,” one of the other standouts, bears a striking resemblance to “Toilet Tisha,” which is itself a child of Funkadelic. (Compare ‘Kast’s delivery of “Don’t go away” to Glover’s “Don’t take my.”)
But the weird ghost I hear in this haunted house of derivative sounds is Harry Nilsson, the sometimes self-sabotaging singer-songer who built a cult audience in the ‘70s, pickpocketing his way through the American songbook with a perpetual sly grin affixed to his face. Nilsson had a magic, shape-shifting voice; he did characters, in addition to being one himself. His playful, catholic taste and sense of humor (perhaps inherited from his circus performer grandparents) seasoned the flavor of his original material, in addition to complicating his covers. He played the music of Randy Newman, Irving Berlin, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Herman Hupfeld; he often stunted with the material. For instance, on his album, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, he went rogue against the wishes of his label and recorded nothing but standards with the backing of a full orchestra—they’re played totally straight, which might’ve been the joke.
I think Glover realizes he doesn't have the gravitas of 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 and of itself; you need to have something interesting to say. (To that end, because Glover is a new parent, the sentiment of "Baby Boy" works.)
Why not bring some levity to funk in 2016? That worked for Bruno Mars 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 misjudged. “Awaken, My Love!” 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, the lyrics are 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.