Childish Gambino Sidesteps Pop Superstardom Path on ‘3.15.20’

Childish Gambino quietly released his new album with blank cover artwork and songs named for their timecodes. Here's our review.

Chidlish Gambino

Image via Publicist

Chidlish Gambino

Donald Glover has been American’s favorite multihyphenate for a decade running (unless you’re counting Kanye West), but it wasn’t until his 2018 single, “This is America,” hit No. 1 that his musical alias Childish Gambino ascended to the status of bona fide pop superstar. Judging from the trimmings and release schedule of his new album 3.15.20, he’s not interested in the role. After uploading the album to his website without warning, he took it down the next day and properly put it out a week later, with a blank white cover and songs named for their timecodes. It was an inscrutable rollout for an album on which Gambino takes big swings, wears his influences on its sleeve, rethinks standard pop song structures, and takes massive leaps across genres both within and between songs—often to his own detriment.

3.15.20 inherits certain traits from Gambino’s last two albums: the ambition and scope of Gambino’s 2013’s album Because the Internet and the turn away from rap and some of the derivative qualities of 2016’s “Awaken! My Love.” The main difference is that those LPs were both conceptual, and the liberties Gambino takes on his new album—the faux-spiritual intro, the animal noises, even the determined genre-hopping—suggest the absence of any kind of unifying vision. 3.15.20 is scattered, with some lows as well as a handful of rewarding moments, which tend to materialize when Gambino and his producers, Ludwig Gorannson and DJ Dahi, lean into the strains of vigorous funk and languid ’70s- and ’80s-indebted soul that he has slowly cultivated in the course of the last decade.

With 3.15.20, Gambino has found his optimal balance between singing and rapping. Like a character actor or a wily NBA vet who adapts his game to suit his team’s needs, Rapping Gambino appears in spot duty, relieving Singing Gambino when the situation demands a change of pace or style. Still, the best rap verse on the album belongs to 21 Savage, who injects the album with some much-needed subversive energy. Gambino’s singing voice is a two-edged sword. It's really a wonderful instrument, but he sometimes uses it as a crutch that allows him to scrape the surface of the production and build his songwriting around Disney-grade platitudes about things like family love, self-worth, and childhood innocence. Other than a brief description of his experimentation with shrooms, he keeps things PG, as if his two young sons were his audience. “35:31” sounds like it could be in a Kia commercial, and the “Time” chorus repurposes a syrupy number from Glover’s 2019 film Guava Island in which he earnestly wonders if “all the stars in the night are really dreams.” 

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Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!” payed tribute to funk titans like Parliament-Funkadelic and Sly & The Family Stone. 3.15.20’s influences are more all over the place. On “12.38,” he channels Andre 3000’s “Vibrate,” using the mischievous rasp of Anderson .Paak. On “24.19,” he tries out Frank Ocean’s tenor and phrasing, as well as the nasal, pitched-up effect of “Nikes.” The album hits its low point on “32.22,” which suffers by not living up to its obvious inspirations: Travis Scott vocals and Yeezus-era beats. 

While songs like “32.22” put a damper on the adventurous spirit of 3.15.20, others offer evidence that Gambino is a compelling soul-funk revivalist (and listens to a tot of Prince). Meanwhile, “42.26” (previously released as “Feels Like Summer”) evokes Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness,” and “47.48,” a slow-burning meditation on what happens when young children are first exposed to serious violence, echoes Donny Hathaway’s “Lil Ghetto Boy.” These two songs are the emotional nerve center of the album; they both carry an ominous undertone, a dormant anger that simmers and rises to the surface in the presence of sweltering heat. 

3.15.20 represents the kind of overextension that is endemic to hyper-successful, do-it-all creative types. (Just look at Kanye’s DONDA chart). On the other hand, its anti-rollout, blank cover, difficult-to-remember song titles, and modest first-week sales projections point to Gambino’s apparent indifference towards promotion, and maybe the immense cultural capital he holds as well. He seems to be intentionally sidestepping the path to pop superstardom he had been riding over the past few years. 3.15.20 also shows how his musical identity is still lodged in his biggest influences. It is telling that one of his best songs is still his 2015 live radio cover of Tamia’s “So Into You,” where his sweet falsetto mingles perfectly with plaintive electric piano and finger snaps. Childish Gambino isn’t a vanguard leading pop forward, and he doesn’t have to be.

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