How I Got Over Myself and Learned To Love Childish Gambino's New Album
“Funk used to be a baaad word” George Clinton teased at the commencement of Funkadelic‘s 1975 challenge-all Let’s Take It To The Stage. Thing is, funk was alive and well even before Clinton and the mob made it a lifestyle, free of its stigma. James Brown knew The One, and was perhaps the very first pastor of its gospel. It was on The Godfather’s foundation that Sly made it wholesome and Jimi made it purple and paisley nearly 15 years before anyone had their eyes on Minneapolis or the storm that Prince was brewing as greats grew old and stagnant. Fast forward to the 21st century: D’Angelo is carrying the flag, armed with the baddest band out and all of the squeaks, squalls and skills to do it his damn self if need be. A true-funksman in every regard.
But if you’re reading this it’s because you too are a music nerd torn up by the curious case that is Childish Gambino‘s P-Funk romp, “Awaken, My Love!” (that, or you’re just wondering what’s wrong with this guy — which is fine.) If that’s the case, you don’t need another history lesson. That’s what we do. We’re the dudes that treated Clinton, Stone, Brown, and Hendrix as the apostles, that made the playlist of cuts Bino referenced while going through the record, that weren’t sure if we were hearing genuine live-the-life funk a la Starchild or just novelty sans commitment. People call us snobs, we prefer “well-versed curators.” Unfortunately, good as we are at tracing the roots of everyone’s favorite sounds, getting back to the good old present proves to be a consistent issue.
Now, it’s been hard not to keep an eye on what Donald Glover’s been cultivating on-screen or on-record as Gambino this year. With Atlanta, Glover brought everyday eeriness to his hometown’s storied haunts, pulling the weird out of the mundane. Curb Your Enthusiasm meets Hustle & Flow: quiet edge with a ton of bite. My Love hits with the same cerebral straight-to-the-dome precision. Gives you the same shit-eating grin as you pick apart each detail. Leaves you with the same “but do I really get it” hole. Sure, the influences are front and center, but what’s the shame in that? Chance tapped into Kirk Franklin’s bag of gospel tricks for his breakout record (and brought the church to a certain Chicagoan hip-hop forefather for his own beautifully chaotic 2016 release.) Maybe it is a little on-the-nose (in both cases,) but why can’t Glover go full Funkenstein? Why are the heavies above reproach? And why won’t heads let this go? I need the answers, Sway. I’m crumbling under the weight of years of rigid listening habits.
It’s important to note that Bino’s no longer of the “fresh millennial 2016 hip-hop” sort, as Questo put it, gushing over the “sucker-punch” that is My Love to the academic funkateer. Instead, we see a man liberated of sustained adolescence. Twenty-somethings know that loop like a freshly “woke” Westworld host searching for their voice(s,) like Bino himself, stretching into infections, modes, and intonations unheard on prior outings. Even some of the adlibs are a little too spot-on. Here, My Love makes no distinction between Glover and Gambino as respective personas. They’re one in the same. Left and right maggot brain in concert – we’re hearing precisely what he’d intended. No more, no less. All of them distinctly his voice, whether it’s a chorus of Marvin-like howls, Clinton-tinged croaks, or slippery Sly salutes.
Truth is, Atlanta and My Love are virtually inseparable; both soaked in heady moments that wreak of genius, both empowered by darkly human experiences. It’s hard to hear “Baby Boy” and not weep, and not see Sly’s subterranean babies-making-babies blues as ubiquitous, and not feel the patriarchal anxieties of bringing a first child into a broken world. “Boogieman” incites a similar discomfort. Gritty and stone-set in its groove, sincere in its heart-crushing plea with the bad guy, and yet, still true to its borrowed era as it blooms. “Riot,” despite being a the album’s most blatantly lifted cue, feels more like an extension than imitation. And it’s still so, so good to your earhole. It’s likely I’ll always skip his wonky Harry Neilson moment (“California,”) and rest assured, I’ve still got my gripes. Overall, the concept of My Love is more perforated than his air-tight, ultra-fluid Because The Internet. There are no “true” singles here. But I’ll be damned if “Redbone” isn’t the most Bootsy ballad this side of The Earth Tour.
All of this is to say, Childish Gambino may not have been the hero funk wanted or even deserved in 2016, but he just might be the one it needs right now. To help us get over ourselves. To stunt on funk’s “establishment.” And most of all, to prove there’s still rich soil in the garden, regardless of whether he’s planting his feet or just passing through.