This isn’t a review. It’s more of a “you know what grinds my gears” moment regarding young music fans/critics and today’s mainstream music consumption. Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love is getting some tremendous buzz currently and the social media snowball effect is in play, right alongside J. Cole’s new album. Praise for both at times just has me looking at certain critics and wondering when their appreciation for music started and if they’ve actually heard anything before that date.
I’m going to come clean for those who aren’t aware – I’ve never been a fan of Childish Gambino. I first heard him on Camp and I found that I just didn’t care for his story. The whole “I was too nerdy for the Black kids – look at me, I’m awkward!” shtick just tended to wear on my nerves, just as his character on Atlanta sulking through every episode rocking his angst like a Pelle Pelle killed all of the non-Paper Boi scenes for me. He comes across way too often as if he’s trying to assert himself as the smartest guy in the room without just relegating himself to the straight-man role. Musically, though, I’ve always felt a twinge of guilt about not liking the guy. A lot of my respected peers like his work and technically, he can rap – I just don’t care about his story. However, I did hear him sing once and liked it, so when I heard he was doing more of that on Awaken, My Love! (and this is probably the last time I’ll be writing that title with the exclamation point intact), I decided to make a conscious effort to approach it with new ears – and I did.
Unfortunately, my results still came out way different than the general consensus. I recall myself five songs in thinking “I never thought I’d say this, but I wish Childish Gambino would just rap already”. This album has already drawn comparisons to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, which just makes me think some folks probably need to sit down with Black Messiah one more time. If we’re going to compare, let’s consider D’Angelo for a moment, who was compared early on to Prince, Sly, and others early on. D’Angelo brought something entirely new to R&B at the time, though, drawing on his old school influences to bring forth both a persona and sound that were truly his own. Same with Bilal, who threw a large helping of funk onto his debut First Born Second, yet still managed to establish his own identity through the story he told and the way he applied those influences to an original piece of work. However, these are artists who made no bones about these influences from the gate and we already know Gambino’s story and it doesn’t exactly say “student of P-funk”. I think it was Jay-Z who once said his first album was his favorite because he put his entire life up to that point into the album. So when you’re an artist on his 3rd studio album and there’s suddenly this pervasive funk sound to the entire project, the studied listener can discern that it comes off more as a pet project than an authentic creation.
Every artist doesn’t need to be groundbreaking in order to be important in some way to you personally or for the time period. You can’t make groundbreaking music when the ground you choose has already been broken and traveled over many times before by greater musicians. And with that said, I think that we’ve come to a point where the average music consumer is so far removed from the works of yester-year and so accustomed to vapid, disposable music that they come to receive works that are almost wholly derivative as if the artist has reinvented the wheel. While Awaken My Love isn’t a bad record, Childish Gambino also isn’t a bad singer or rapper. Not being bad, though, doesn’t make either the artist or album “great”. We’ve just lost the ability to confidently rate anything within the vast, yet underrated grey space between “classic” and “trash”. I promise, music fans, it’s okay for things to just be “good” without throwing a parade on social media about an album that more than likely won’t be in your rotation by the end of the year or thereafter (not saying that this is necessarily that album). Awaken My Love is good because Childish Gambino actually tried (and succeeded) in a climate where doing the bare minimum is all the rage in urban music. This doesn’t exonerate him from being a bit unoriginal, though, even if you’re unfamiliar with the genre from which he’s jacking styles. Perhaps it isn’t fair to deride CG, considering he’s only following in the footsteps of Bruno Mars and Robin Thicke, who have been quite successful at borrowing whole sounds from greater artists and re-selling the appropriation as new to a grossly uneducated demographic of younger music fans who may not have the point of reference to say that what they’re hearing sounds like something better re-heated for today.
I’m glad this album is out and I’m glad people are paying attention to it. It’s always a good sign when people look for some kind of authenticity to what they’re hearing, even if the sound is borrowed and the gauge for authenticity has been broken almost beyond repair. Real instruments still had to get played and for a rap-adjacent soul album, that’s refreshing (even if we also had to tolerate Glover’s autotuned whining and general pretense to hear said instrumentation). Awaken My Love is an unexpected bright spot in a year where rap music and hip-hop culture were synonymous with VH1 reality garbage or mumbling upstarts with no idea how to put together an album. At least he’s taking some chances, considering he’s in the position and the creative space to do so. That said, I think it’s a great jumping off point for starting a conversation about influence vs. emulation. Where are we really headed if we keep celebrating direct copying of old music as opposed to taking those influences and creating something both new and creatively sound?