Childish Gambino, "Awaken, My Love!" (Glassnote Records)
It's OK not to "get" Childish Gambino's third studio album "Awaken, My Love!" With its lush soundscapes and sparse lyrics, one can only gather that the funk-drenched latest release from the multi-talented Donald Glover is a collection that is to be felt first and understood second — if understanding is possible at all.
Outstanding first single "Me and Your Mama" and equally arresting follow-up track "Redbone" are the easiest to digest of the 11-song set. Twinkling chimes and a haunting chorus give way to fiery electric guitar and crashing drums on the former, while Gambino coos and cries out in his falsetto across the swaggering production of the latter.
Both were produced by Gambino's longtime collaborator and Swedish music composer Ludwig Goransson, who has a hand in the majority of the tracks. But Gambino and Goransson's latest project together is nothing like the previous albums and mixtapes. The cartoonish production and silly wordplay are gone. Instead of rapping, Gambino sings from the gut, sounding like Rick James on the spine-tingling "Zombies," featuring up-and-coming singer-rapper Kari Faux.
"They can smell your money, and they want your soul," Gambino sings, in a warning that could easily be about the music industry or Hollywood — the "Atlanta" show creator and music artist knows both. His voice is ghoulish on the uplifting Parliament-Funkadelic-inspired "Have Some Love" and desperate on the chaotic "Riot," which includes in its credits members of the legendary funk collective.
Gambino channels an easier 70s vibe on "Baby Boy." (Think: Sly and the Family Stone.) "Little hands, little feet, tiny heart, tiny beat," he sings before pleading, ". don't take him away."
It's easy to get lost in the music, with one psychedelic-tinged track washing into another. That is, with the exception of the beachy, annoyingly catchy and slightly out of place "California." Gambino pushes the limits of his sound on "Awaken, My Love!" and while it's not all smooth sailing, it's a trippy ride worth taking.