Childish Gambino lacking, derivative on new album

Childish Gambino—the stage name of actor Donald Glover—continues to reach mediocrity despite fantastic vocals, range and few stellar tracks on his newest album “Awaken, My Love!” Courtesy of John Biehler

I remember my freshman year of high school two of my friends were talking about something on one of their phones. They were sharing headphones and listening to one of their iPods: they were listening to “Troy from Community’s” rap album. The rapper, Childish Gambino (also known as Donald Glover), became a part of my high school experience. His sophomore album “Because the Internet” and accompanying screenplay of the same name came out my sophomore year, and his third musical release, “STN MTN / Kauai” came out my senior year.

It’s a shame, then, that I think Childish Gambino is so mediocre. I want to remember high school for things other than a mediocre screenplay and three subpar albums, but memories have a funny way of working like that. I’m being unfair to Gambino, though. His music wouldn’t be a part of my high school experience if I didn’t like it on some level. I just find myself continually disappointed by how almost-good his music has been.

My problem with Gambino is that his music suffers from two problems: It’s inconsistent, and it’s pretentious. Donald Glover recently proved that he could craft something that avoided these two problems with his fantastic TV show “Atlanta” (I gave it 5/5 stars in my review for the show). This left me curious about this new album: Could Glover pull off the same feat with his new album? Can he avoid the pit of mediocre pretentiousness that has plagued his other musical forays?

In some sense, yeah, this album isn’t terrible— it’s pretty decent, actually—and it isn’t pretentious, thankfully. Gambino pulls off the switch to funk pretty well, so props to him for that.

At the same time, I am also deeply disappointed with this album. There just isn’t enough in this album for it to stand up on its own. I always feel like I’m thinking of other musical acts while l listen to “Awaken,” and I end up wishing I were listening to them instead.

First off, the things I like about this album: The singles “Me and Your Mama” and “Redbone” are fantastic, and they set the bar for the rest of the album. Gambino’s vocals are stellar. Gambino proves that he has got pipes, and the instrumentation is there to back him up.

The other songs I like on this album are the ones that are crafted in this same vein: songs like “California,” “Boogieman” and “Riot,” where the vocals and instrumentals work as a couple. These tracks are where the album is at its best. “Boogieman” and “Riot” are songs that jam hard, and you can’t help but jam along.

The track “California” I feel deserves special recognition because of how much it sticks out. This track sees Gambino vocoder-singing in this groany voice over very chill instrumentals. I can already tell that this will be a very polarizing track. But personally, I really liked how well it contrasts with the rest of the album, and I think it is the most original track by far (originality being something that this album is lacking in).

Conversely, the songs I don’t like are the ones where the vocals and instrumentals do not match up, like the song “Stand Tall,” in which Gambino sings a ballad, but there’s a space odyssey going on in the background. Or where Gambino just doesn’t deliver the vocals that the instrumentation is demanding, like on the track “Zombies.” Gambino sings with this odd puffed-chest bravado inflection that just doesn’t work.

There is also quite a bit of vocoder usage on this album. Sometimes I like it, like on the track “California,” where it gives the track this kind of lazy, relaxed feeling. But other times, like on the track “Zombies” or “Stand Tall,” it sticks out and doesn’t sound quite right. It just doesn’t work well with the instrumentals.

Another big complaint I have about this album is that it isn’t original. If you’ve listened to Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain,” you’ve heard a good portion of this album. Gambino’s track “Have Some Love” is almost a carbon copy of their “Can You Get to That,” and Gambino’s version doesn’t come close to touching on the original. He lacks that lighthearted playfulness that makes Funkadelic so great.

This use of funk bothers me, and it’s one of my biggest complaints with this album. First off, funk isn’t something that just disappeared at the end of the ’70s. Funk has been a part of hip-hop and R&B since their respective inceptions (before Dre got his doctorate, he was part of the funk group World Class Wreckin’ Cru). So for Gambino to make a straight-up funk album and pull straight from the ’70s feels like he’s ignoring a lot that the genre has to offer.

I’m pointing this out because some other artists have used funk throwbacks to make their own music, but they are just leagues ahead of Gambino in terms of musical success. 2014’s “Black Messiah” by D’Angelo and the Vanguard does everything that “Awaken, My Love!” doesn’t. Black Messiah doesn’t suffer from poor vocal performances or a dysfunctional relationship between instrumentals and vocals. Gambino’s use of funk simply isn’t original and falls short compared to other modern and old-school funk acts.

Not to say that “Awaken, My Love!” isn’t worth listening to. It is. There are songs on here that are absolutely stellar. These tracks carry this album. The rest of the album, however, just feels derivative, weightless and boring.

This puts “Awaken, My Love!” in an awkward place. Gambino is content with pulling from older acts instead of developing his own sound. So on one hand, it’s going to get compared to what he is pulling from: acts like Funkadelic and their “Maggot Brain.” And that comparison is never going to be favorable to the modern act. At the same time, “Awaken” is also going to get compared to its contemporaries, like D’Angelo and The Vanguard, and it’s clear that Gambino’s music is just lacking something that keeps it from rivaling acts like that.

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