Anything but Child’s Play: A Look at Childish Gambino’s Musical Evolution

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What happens when you take a writer/producer/actor/comedian and put their name into a Wu-Tang name generator? You get Donald Glover’s musical counterpart Childish Gambino.

2016 was a busy year for Glover, he released an FX television show “Atlanta,” won Golden Globes for said show, was cast as a young Lando Calrissian in the upcoming young Han Solo Star Wars spinoff and released his third album “Awaken My Love!” and he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.

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Taking his three major works, 2011’s “Camp,” 2013’s “Because the Internet” and “Awaken My Love!” as well as his 2014 EP “Kauai” it’s easy to see Gambino’s musical evolution over the last five years. “Camp” on it’s own is a decent album, you can hear Gambino’s feelings come pouring out in his delivery and his lyrics which make the album. The track “Fire Fly” is one song that an interesting mix that shows how Gambino can rap over a beat but also shows he hadn’t quite hit his stride. “All I do is make the stuff I would’ve liked; Reference things I wanna watch, reference girls I wanna bite,” Gambino says on the track. The lyrics reflect that he just wants to make music his way and he’s not trying to impress anyone. It’s a great message especially early in a debut album, but the delivery leaves something to be desired, especially when the track is followed by the banger “Bonfire.” But he makes up for the lapse in delivery by recovering with the slam “Now I’m firefly like a burning kite, and you’s a fake fuck like a flesh light.”

“Camp” while being far from perfect still has an irresistible charm. That’s all thanks to Gambino’s realness, especially on the final track “That Power” where a hard beat and raspy vocals fall into a slow jam funk song with Gambino talking about a girl he met as a teenager at camp and how he finally works up the courage to say something. It’s an interesting way to end an album especially one with lyrics like “Eating Oreos like these white girls that blow me” in such a touching and relatable way. You know exactly what Gambino’s going through whether you’re a guy or a gal and the way the beat picks up as he tells the story leads perfectly into “Because the Internet.”

(Photo: Mark Horton/WireImage)

(Photo: Mark Horton/WireImage)

Albums can be collections of songs, a group of noises and sometimes they can be a movie in music form and that’s the best way to describe “Because the Internet.” The first actual track on the song “Crawl” has a beat that sounds like someone trapped in a cave, but Gambino raps over it like he’s got five times the confidence of “Camp.” It shows that “Camp” might have been an experiment or simply an introduction that Gambino can make music, but “Because the Internet” starts with a bang that says “I know what I’m doing now, and you better strap in for the next 19 tracks.” Songs like “Sweatpants,” “The Worst Guys,” and “3005” show Gambino can spit 16 bars with flow and still make it unique to his style. On “Sweatpants” he stops the beat after saying “Ain’t nobody sicker in my Fisker vroom vroom hoe,” just to remind us that “Fiskers don’t make noise when they start up….just so you know.” It’s so cheeky and clever and he goes right back into the beat like he didn’t just school us on car noises.

There are also lead-in tracks that make the subsequent tracks feel weightier when you hear them. “Playing Around Before The Party Starts” is just party noises with a piano laced over it. This leads right into “The Party” which has some of the distortion and cave feeling found on “Crawl.” The interaction between all 19 blend together and feel like they’re all from similar cloth, yet they can still stand on their own as singles. It doesn’t feel as stilted as “Camp” did and shows Gambino can carry a long form concept album while still improving himself and his music.

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Striking while the iron was hot, Gambino dropped “Kauai” along with the companion mixtape “STN MTN” in 2014. While “STN MTN” features Gambino rapping and a more traditional hip-hop sound, “Kauai” had him singing with a soulful voice and fills you with a sense of nostalgia for summer days and nights spent on the beach.  The EP does have a questionable addition with Jaden Smith as “The Boy” in a story similar to “That Power.” It doesn’t ruin the immersion that Gambino created on the earlier tracks, but having Smith pop in can take some getting used to. That said, “Kauai” is the most transitional piece of music Gambino had released at the time and sets up “Awaken My Love!” better than “Because the Internet.”

Here it is, the coup de grace, a mature and all-business Childish Gambino album and one that pays respects to the funk that inspired it in a masterful way.  Featuring almost no rap, “Awaken My Love!” is pure R&B/Funk through and through. Actual whammy guitars and drum beats and songs grandiose enough for Gambino to flex his impressive singing ability in his most restrained and mature album yet. Songs like “Me and Your Mama” show he can still switch up a song’s cadence at a moment’s notice when he begins screaming like James Brown toward the middle of the track for it to play out on just instruments. The on defining feature of “Awaken My Love!” that makes it stand out from his other two LPs is the consistency. The songs don’t sound the same, but they’re all coming from the same place and are about women and love and just living life and it feels like Gambino’s most personal album yet because of that.

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Looking at this catalogue of music, it’s undeniable that Gambino has musical talent that some people would only dream of, and it’s evident how much he has grown in the five years he’s been releasing it.. There really is something for everyone on these albums, and that’s not a phrase to be taken lightly. At any point during these albums there are hip-hop bangers, soulful songs, love songs and songs that will make you laugh at the pure audacity and cleverness that Gambino possesses, and it still feels like he’s only getting started.

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