It's hard to look at the colorful cover art of Awaken, My Love!, Donald Glover's third release as Childish Gambino, without seeing the screaming female head of Funkadelic's apocalyptic masterpiece Maggot Brain. The cosmic atmosphere and winking title of lead single “Me and Your Mama” make the association even clearer: Awaken, My Love! is heavily indebted to and inspired by Maggot Brain, at times a disturbingly close read of Funkadelic's loose-tempo funk, full-family choruses, and winding song structures.
Instead of rapping, the ever-chameleonic Glover acts as a yelping bandleader and groovemaster, and the album tests whether his reinvention of 1970s funk is sophisticated or merely secondhand. Following the epic “Me and Your Mama,” which shifts from celestial hymn to greasy soul-rock to lounge jazz, the next two tracks on Awaken, My Love! continue Glover's giddy revivalism: “Have Some Love” is a sunny singalong undercut by an aquatic bassline, and “Boogieman” features frenetic riffs and vocal gymnastics.
This trio of songs is a riotous start to the album but hardly reveals anything besides Glover's reverence for Funkadelic (the tracks are sequenced almost identically to the opening three from Maggot Brain). Considering their scattered and extemporaneous lyrics, these songs can even seem frustratingly coy and evasive, like Glover is obscuring his own identity by way of impersonating others, and sidestepping the momentum he's built as a wordsmith on previous Childish Gambino releases.
The album, Donald Glover's third release as Childish Gambino, finds the musician confusing his idols for muses.
It's on the paranoid slow jam “Zombies” where Awaken, My Love! trips into something truly exciting and unique. Glover's wigged-out delivery is a tight match to the song's abrupt chord shifts and campy instrumentation, turning what could have been a piece of kitsch into a captivating and curious ballad. “Redbone” is a similar triumph, conjuring Shuggie Otis—Glover's other consistent touchpoint on this album—and the melody from Outkast's “Roses”; its wah-wah guitar and slap bass, distant chimes, and pitch-shifted vocals are robotic and soulful at once. “Stay woke, niggas creepin'/They gon' find you, gon' catch you sleepin',” Glover sings on the chorus, wielding the lyrical brevity he uses throughout the album into a clear and conscious message.
The album also takes stylistic twists, from “California” (neo-soul Tropicalia) to “Stand Tall,” which cycles between different takes on inspirational afterhours music (jazz flute, ambient keyboards, bedroom acoustic guitar, and AutoTune all make their way into the mix). These shambolic tracks, especially compared to the songs that feel borrowed from Glover's heroes, show him as an evolving, audacious songwriter and musician, as do the autobiographical flourishes on “Baby Boy” (written to his son) and the starry, smoky arrangement on the instrumental “The Night Me and Your Mama Met.”
Not unlike Atlanta, the FX series created by and starring Glover, Awaken, My Love! sometimes uses weirdly digressive moments to quickly expose Glover's private ambitions and thoughts, even if it generally has an irreverent tone and the energy of a jittery sideshow. It's thus the cartoonish paranoia and rowdy abandon of the '70s funk titans that dominate the album, not the millennial ennui or personal and cerebral angst of Glover the comedian and actor.
This isn't to say that his impressions aren't spot on, nor that he could have picked a better time to bring back the collectivist whimsy of groups like Funkadelic. But much of the album plays like a third-party rendering of a very good time, and feels destined for one-off status in the Childish Gambino catalogue. A maddening ride with an authenticity problem, Awaken, My Love! finds Glover confusing his idols for muses.