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Photo by Ethan Miller/WireImage. Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for Okayplayer.
Photo by Ethan Miller/WireImage. Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for Okayplayer.

On ‘Atavista,’ Donald Glover Still Wants Childish Gambino to Get it Right

The much-anticipated new project, Atavista, from gifted multi-hyphenate Donald Glover has arrived.

Back in 2018, riding high on the critical acclaim of his viral track “This Is America” and the lingering goodwill from 2016’s Awaken, My Love, the multi-hyphenate Donald Glover, sometimes known as Childish Gambino, announced that he was leaving his music career behind. Or at least, he was ditching the Childish Gambino presentation of it. He’d made headlines when he announced the apparent end of Childish Gambino during a standout set at Governor’s Ball in 2017.

In addition to the critical acclaim he’d secured with Awaken My Love, Glover was also in the middle of production on the second season of his acclaimed FX dramedy Atlanta. That award-winning series put Glover squarely at the center of the pop culture zeitgeist, with Awaken and the subsequent “This Is America” cementing him as an Important artist of our time — just shy of being saddled with the dreaded “Voice of a Generation” tag that commentators once handed out with aplomb to iconoclastic auteurs who managed to deliver work that was simultaneously period-defining and undeniably popular. By the end of 2018, Glover would have to grapple with the loss of his father, Donald Glover, Sr.

Of course, at the dawn of 2020, everything changed.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill and it was the dark dawn of that period of fear, panic and misinformation that Childish Gambino returned with 3.15.20, his official (if somewhat downplayed) follow-up to the masterwork Awaken, My Love. Glover’s creative ambitions had been fully apparent, at the very least since his 2013 critical breakthrough Because the Internet, but 3.15.20 saw a level of attention that comes with becoming the kind of culture-shifting success he’d become in the wake of a hit TV show and acclaimed funk-rock album. Mostly recorded with DJ Dahi and Glover’s frequent collaborator, composer Ludwig Goransson, the music itself predated the pandemic,

Even in the lead-up to re-releasing the album, Glover’s hands have been in numerous pots. He executive-produced the FX horror/thriller miniseries Swarm, and co-created/co-starred in the remake series Mr. and Mrs. Smith for Amazon Prime and launched a Bose campaign — all while making the time to clean-up his most recent full musical release and return to the work of being Childish Gambino. He teased that music was coming back in March, and earlier this week, 3.15.20 was pulled from streaming services in anticipation of this new release.

Atavista is more or less the mixed, mastered, trimmed and polished version of Glover’s pandemic-era 3.15.20, and musically, it reaches back to earlier Glover sonics, as the original album did. He’s mostly past the sluggy, druggy funk of Awaken…; while embracing a jones for Prince specifically and ‘80s R&B in general. If 3.15.20 was intentionally unfinished to reflect his personal upheaval and the discordance in the world in the wake of COVID and George Floyd, Atavista presupposes to be the more clear-eyed, worked-up version of those truncated musical ideas.

The punchy, funky “Algorhythm” is effortlessly infectious, a holdover from 3.15.20 that echoes Gambino’s love of ‘90s R&B (quoting Zhane’s 1993 smash “Hey Mr. DJ”). 21 Savage, Ink Boggs and Khadhja Bonet appear on “12.38,” rechristened “"Psilocybae (Millennial Love),” and it remains one of the standouts here. “Human Sacrifice” was a major part of the “This Is America Tour” live sets, and it finally gets “officially” released; it’s one of the most oddly listenable moments on the album, its swaying, pulsing urgency still intact. “47.48” from 3.15.20 re-emerges as “Don’t Worry About Tomorrow (The Violence)” the most Awaken, My Love-esque leftover moment in that it evokes the breeziness of a ‘70s singer-songwriter. “Time” with Ariana Grande is still very much in a Prince-lite groove, with a dollop of the kind of eclecticism that many artists have tried to capture in the way that The Purple One seemed to find naturally.

The spirit of Love Below-era Andre 3000 looms over the songs here; in how that particular album nursed a very obvious Prince affectation. Glover’s latest feels more stylistically all-over-the-place than that project from two decades ago. But while he may be stylistically scattershot, it never sounds unfocused in as much as it feels unbridled. If this is the end of Childish Gambino, or the personas final act, he’s going out with a bevy of creative ideas. Gambino dropped a new six minute black-and-white music video for the Young Nudy-featuring “Little Foot, Big Foot,” in which he plays a jazz era performer, with an appearance for fellow TV game-changer Quinta Brunson, as the owner of a club. “Final Church” has the fervor of a gospel epic designed to bring the house down, closing things with a rousing flourish.

Donald Glover has crafted a public persona that seems to somehow both be aloof and deeply passionate. He cares deeply about seeming like he doesn’t care. Or at the very least, coming across like he isn’t trying too hard. That’s not to say the music sounds tossed-off or irrelevant, quite the contrary, Glover’s creative earnestness has become his calling card. That it can sometimes manifest in a semi-aimlessness may be the only damning effect on this final, “finished’ version of Atavista. It could be argued that this is merely to whet the public’s appetite for an actually “new” project (the soundtrack and film Bando Stone and the New World is promised to arrive this summer, along with a tour to support both projects.) He performed at Coachella alongside Tyler, The Creator and it’s still hard to tell if this is the last go-round for the erstwhile Childish Gambino. Atavista may not be an entirely “new” album, but it’s the perfect first course for what could be a creative burst from Glover throughout the remainder of 2024.

If nothing else, it shows that Childish Gambino still cares about getting it right.