‘Awaken, My Love!’: Track-by-Track

I wanna make up for some lost time, so I’m keepin’ this one TIGHT. Just going to write a little about each track on the album.

I’m actually just learning some of the track names from Wikipedia now because for some reason there’s a fucking hand over the tracklist on the CD case:

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Why?

Which brings me to mention that, yes, my wi-fi is shitty enough that I did resort to buying this thing on CD. They sell it at Target! I bought it and two other notable 2016 albums, playing a little catch-up on the year just past.

That brings me to the first giant digression of this review. Here’s the most controversial ranking you’ll ever see:

Austin Gerth’s recent Target CD purchases, ranked:

1) The 1975’s I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

2) Beyoncé’s Lemonade

3) Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!

*(To be fair, if I were to list them by which album had the highest peaks, I would probably go with Bey, 1975, Gambino. Really hard to compete with “Formation,” “Freedom,” and “Hold Up,” the three genuine all-timers on Lemonade.)

TIIIIIGHHTTT. Back to the album:

“Me and Your Mama”

It’s a standout, and a solid introduction to the album. It’s probably the album’s best homage to depressed, political, explosively rocking soul that was being put out by Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone in 1970 and 1971. To its credit, the intro and the little synth doodle that blooms over the ending allow this track to stand on its own instead of being defined by its clear influences. This song also introduces us to one of the album’s most important points: that Donald Glover is a monstrously talented vocalist.

“Have Some Love”

Weakest track on this whole shit. On my first straight-through listen, this song filled me with a looming sense of dread. In order to explain why, I have to clue you into a personal bias I’ve realized I have: When it comes to harmonies, I am a Beach Boys guy through and through. I like my harmonies clean and tight. (Just like this track-by-track review, amirite?) I am not so much a loosey goosey, crowd-shouted harmonies type of guy. That means that some of the undeniably classic funk and soul of the late ‘60s and ‘70s that Awaken, My Love! draws from has an extra hurdle to get over with me: I either have to dissociate myself from my personal taste in order to give it its due critical consideration, or the song has to be so good, or use that vocal element so effectively, that it transcends my usual reaction against it.

So the first strike against “Have Some Love,” right out the gate, is those massed vocals, like an extended family with varying degrees of individual vocal talent all singing together (ugh! so positive!). These vocals are especially disappointing, given that “Me and Your Mama” had already proven one of Gambino’s greatest assets (his singing) to a degree never before heard (by me) in his music.

But wait: I have an even bigger problem with this song: It’s mediocre. And not only is it mediocre, but it’s a mediocre song with a VERY SPECIFIC sonic reference point. “Have Some Love” is a mediocre and obvious ripoff of “Can You Get to That,” by Funkadelic.

The proof is in the funky pudding, my friends:

Not only is “Can You Get To That” an absolute, Stone Cold Steve Austin motherfucking funk classic, it’s a classic that features those aforementioned crowd-shouted vocals, the ones I don’t usually like that well. But it is, in fact, one of those also aforementioned, benighted few songs that transcend my bias against such vocals—I love it. It’s a great song. “Have Some Love” is not.

Why don’t we go a little deeper with that Funkadelic comparison? Not only is “Have Some Love” a clear poor man’s version of “Can You Get To That,” it also actually occupies THE SAME SPOT in the tracklisting as “Can You Get To That” does on Funkadelic’s 1971 album Maggot Brain. Both songs occupy the second slot on their albums.

And put on your tin foil hats, folks, because here’s the cover art of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain:

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Look familiar?

“Boogieman”

“Boogieman” features more of those gospel-y group vocals, but they only really annoy me for the first verse. When I went from “Have Some Love” into that first verse on my first listen through the album, I was really feeling like this whole record had taken a complete nosedive. But “Boogieman” picks up after that verse for me, and the album pulls itself out of the breach. The pre-chorus (the part where the drums drop out for a little while before the chorus) is sublime. It makes up for everything. The group vocals return here and there, but they don’t bother me anymore. The sun rises, and the rest of the album is pretty solid.

“Zombies”

This song, like “Boogieman,” is kind of goofy, but I think it works better than “Boogieman”. A big part of that for me is Donald Glover’s return to lead vocals. SIDENOTE: There’s also a thinkpiece to be written about this album’s zombie and boogieman lyrics and imagery (the cover’s like a deliberate, glam, Afrofuturist zombie version of the Maggot Brain cover above), and the Civil Rights allegory I know some people read into the movie Night of the Living Dead. But I’m going to listen to tracks six through eight again instead of writing that thinkpiece.

“Riot”

This song brings the album almost back to “Me and Your Mama” quality levels. It’s not quite as well put together a song, but it’s really short so it gets a pass. (SIDENOTE: the members of Funkadelic are actually credited as songwriters on this one, FYI, because they’re sampled in the groove.) What makes this track for me is the incredible, Prince-like scream Don G. deploys throughout.

“Redbone”

The Prince comparisons for this one make sense, but to be honest I don’t really think they do justice to just what a good little song this is. Like just listen to the thing, we don’t need to play spot-the-influence.  Just enjoy it, and if you ever run into Donald Glover, give him a hearty slap on the back and say, “Donny, man, that ‘Redbone’ song? That’s a keeper. Good song, Donny.” It also launches us into the album’s second half, which features much more falsetto, and is all the better for it, in this writer’s opinion. Also love the little melody played by the weird, bloopy synth alongside the glockenspiel. Really fortifies the groove on this thing.

“California”

A Story: I recently formed a band with an old friend, a new friend, and a couple of strangers who are now also friends. At our first exploratory jam session, we all took a break to sit on the porch and shoot the shit. The other fellows passed a joint around, and the conversation eventually turned to a debate of this song’s merits. This was before I’d heard the full album. “California” has been almost unanimously singled out by critics as the red-headed stepchild of this record. There are some goofy, “weird” songs on here, but this one is the one that doesn’t fit in with the prevailing ‘70s funk vibe, the one that doesn’t, at first listen, make any damn sense at all. During our porch discussion of this song, our vocalist, Chelanga, expressed enthusiasm for it: he liked its fun, lighthearted nature, and its unorthodox arrangement (with the pan flute, etc). For him it was a funky little feel good jam; I think he said he’d listened to it several times that day. Eric, one of our guitarists, was more skeptical: he thought it was too weird, and it stuck out too much from the rest of the album. The biggest sticking point was the vocal style. But then we listened to the song, to settle things, and the positives started to pile up. We all warmed to it a little, even as we criticized parts of it, marveled at the inscrutable decisions that had gone into it. It’s a weird one, but it’s catchy. It obviously doesn’t want to be taken seriously, so why take it seriously?

I had a hard time dealing with the incomprehensible accent on the vocals on this one, but with time, they’ve won me over. I now actually think this album could use one or two more random-ass songs that sound like a drunk Jamaican Steve Urkel doing karaoke over Jimmy Buffet outtakes.

“Terrified”

The weird, slow-mo DJ Mustard-sounding beat with a half-hearted Curtis Mayfield impression on top that this song opens with really gets me, especially the little moments when the singing lapses into dazed speech for part of a line. And then the drums come in with the perfect fill, and we get a few minutes of a tasty groove with some sweet harmonies. I like the part where DG seductively says he wants to eat the listener alive, and then says “Please don’t find me rude, but I don’t eat fast food,” and totally sells it even though in anyone else’s hands that would be a really, really stupid line.

“Baby Boy”

This thing has more incredible falsetto and really just serves to continue the absurdly deep bench of good songs tucked in the second half of the album’s run time. I also dig the echo-laden jellyfish documentary soundtrack-sounding synths that creep in here and there on this one during the chorus. Just kidding: those synths are actually guitars!!

“The Night Me and Your Mama Met”

This song is an instrumental tune in 6/8 time with some guitar shredding on it. Funkadelic also have an instrumental tune in 6/8 time with some guitar shredding on it, but the two do not need to be compared.

“Stand Tall”

This song strikes me as a cross between two musicians: Shuggie Otis and Marvin Gaye. Shuggie Otis wrote one famous song called “Strawberry Letter 23,” which you all really should listen to because it’s wonderful and you will like it. Marvin Gaye is Marvin Gaye. Unlike “Have Some Love,” this song works really well with its influences, and it closes the album out on a high note. Glover’s vocals on this are great, and I like the little touch of Auto-Tune on that one random vocal phrase.

Verdict: “Have Some Love” is Wack, but almost everything else Wails.