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Thursday, July 29, 2021

If this is the end of Childish Gambino, it’s a beautiful tribute — a review of “3.15.20”

Glover’s most recent album is filled with honest, beautiful, self-assured self-doubt 

For years, Donald Glover, the singer, rapper, actor and altogether wildly gifted artistic creator, has hinted at plans to retire “Childish Gambino,” the musical stage name under which he performs. 

As a long-time fan, I can sympathize with Glover’s desire to separate from his Gambino persona. The transformations of both Glover and his Gambino persona are jarring — of Glover in his role as Troy Barnes on “Community” to his role as Earnest “Earn” Marks on “Atlanta,” and of Gambino from his early “I Am Just A Rapper” days, rapping over indie-pop favorites like Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks” and Sleigh Bells’ “Crown On The Ground” to his politically pointed and poignant “This is America.” Yet, the refinement and maturity of his artistic talent in these processes is blatant and undeniable.

This is perhaps why I wasn’t fully sold on his new album “3.15.20” upon first listen — I couldn’t quite find Childish Gambino in the album. It felt different — it was different — and I didn’t know what to make of it.

In early Childish Gambino work, there is an endearing, albeit juvenile, unsorted eccentricity. In the song “Lights On” from his 2011 album “EP,” he references (among other things) the clothing brand Gap, the Pokémon Raichu, the disinfectant brand Lysol, the 2010 film “The Social Network,” the SuperBowl, Vulture magazine, Cameron Diaz and Alex Rodriguez. It’s funny, but it’s also chaotic.

After I listened to “3.15.20” once, and then a dozen times, and then on an endless loop, I found Childish Gambino, still wildly anxious as ever, but now so composed. 

“Childish Gambino […] vividly conveys his anxieties regarding racism, aging, mass incarceration, climate change, parenthood and how people can’t walk down the street without tripping anymore because they’re always staring at their phones,” writes Los Angeles Times Music Critic Mikael Wood in his review of the album.

The album opens with “0.00,” seemingly meant as a preface to the rest of the album, rather than a stand-alone single. “3.15.20” is meant to be listened to in its carefully arranged progression, as the songs flow into one another. The more astute observer might notice that tracks four through 12 are titled with the minute and second mark, indicative of where they begin in the 57-minute album. (Apparently I am not an astute observer, because a friend of mine had to explain it to me after some confusion on my end.) 

The second and third songs, “Algorhythm” and “Time,” the only tracks titled with words, are two perfectly polar yet on-brand examples of Childish Gambino’s sound. “Algorhythm” is an ominous track about technology addiction and dependence, reminiscent in style and message to “II. Earth: The Oldest Computer” from his 2013 album (and my personal favorite) “Because The Internet.” “Time,” however, sets a completely different tone: It’s upbeat, pop-y and even features Ariana Grande. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t roll my eyes at some of the more banal lyrics in this track (“Maybe all the stars in the night are really dreams”).

Twelve minutes and 38 seconds into the album — at the track “12.38” — the album goes from forgettable to classic. As the kids say: This track slaps. It’s clever, addictive and classic Gambino. The sound change around the five-minute mark is flawlessly executed and reminds me of tracks like Frank Ocean’s “Nights” and Tyler, The Creator’s “GONE, GONE / THANK YOU,” which also incorporate seamless transitions toward the end of their run-times.

“12.38” is a musical narration of a sexual encounter enhanced or otherwise influenced by drugs. At one particularly memorable point, Childish Gambino asks: “Ayy, why your cat lookin’ at me sideways?” Then, playing the part of his female companion, he sing-croons “Sing to her.” “I said, ‘nah, I’ll put on the radio though.’” It’s a familiar integration of humor with music (Glover is also a comedian), but in a much more secure and relaxed way than before.

The end of “12.38” explodes into “19.10,” an energetic and easy-to-listen-to track. He recounts when, at age six, his father told him he was “gorgeous,” but “To be beautiful is to be hunted.” This is one of the first nods in the album to parental encouragement and advice, but it’s not the last. In “47.48,” Gambino/Glover seems to sing directly to his children: “Little boy, little girl / Are you scared of the world? / Is it hard to live? / Just take care of your soul.” 

The most touching moment in the album is the dialogue between Glover and his son, Legend, which closes “47.48.” Glover asks his son who he loves, and he says he loves himself. 

“Do you love yourself?,” Legend asks.

“I do love myself,” Glover answers.

“Does mommy love herself?” Legend asks.

“Absolutely,” Glover answers.

Appearing two songs prior to “47.48” is “39.28,” a song equally as beautiful, though tinged with sadness and loss. “Grief is a standing ocean / And I never swam unless you did / So I don’t know why I’m here without you / I miss you.” It’s one of my favorite songs on the album.

There are other greats: Listeners might recognize “42.26” as Gambino’s previously released “Feels Like Summer,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the 55-minute, gorgeously shot short-film “Guava Island.” The movie, starring Glover and Rihanna, is directed by Hiro Murai, who also directed Gambino’s “This Is America” music video, which has over 652 million views — and if a music video was ever to be considered a cinematic masterpiece, this is it.

Up until “3.15.20,” Gambino’s music has been largely defined by insecurity, self-deprecation and internalized anger. This album is none of that — it’s self-assured self-doubt. So I do understand why Glover wants to part ways with his musical persona, and it’s been suggested that “3.15.20” is the last Childish Gambino project. 

But if this is the end, it’s a beautiful tribute. These lines in “53.49,” the last track in the album, sum it up perfectly: “There is love in every moment / Under the sun, boy / I did what I wanted to, yeah, yeah / Now I just power forward.”

Written by: Hannah Holzer — arts@theaggie.org

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