Childish Gambino live-streamed music from his latest and last album on donaldgloverpresents.com for a few hours on March 15.
While I unfortunately missed those hours, I was aware that an album was coming soon. Finally, after four years since the release of the phenomenal “Awaken, My Love!”, Gambino finally put out 3.15.20 (on March 22 — or 3.22.20).
My first reaction was disappointment.
It hurts me to say it, but I expected better from him. I appreciate Gambino’s experimentation in this album — it seems like he has harnessed the sounds and styles of all his previous albums with a mix of laid-back pop and electro-synth-funk with an added dystopian industrialism to it. It’s a brave attempt, and I respect him for trying out these styles. But for most of the tracks on the album, it just didn’t work out.
I did like some songs, many of which had pretty good lyrics and expressed some interesting themes. Moreover, the album has very long transitions between each song, the outro of one song leading directly into the intro of the next. These transitions were unexpected, and I think that element of the experiment worked really well for me.
But as a whole, the project lacks cohesion. It comes off as sounding simultaneously overproduced and too lo-fi, making it seem more like the rough draft of an album than a finished product.
The cover and track titles definitely do not help with the unfinished, hurried feel of this album, not to mention that the song titles make discussing this album with someone impossible. All the songs on the album, with the exception of the second and third track (“Algorythm” and “Time”), are titled by their timestamps on the album, and that makes associating the songs with their titles (like “19.10” or “24.19”) quite difficult.
As I go down the tracklist, I’ll be titling each track with a recognizable word from the lyrics in parentheticals, so that if you have heard or are planning on hearing it, you can understand what song I’m talking about.
The intro to the album, “0.00” (“We are”), does a good job of introducing the audience to the techno sound that overarches the entire album, and its ambient tones are a good runway into the album. However, for its three minute runtime, the song never really goes beyond repeating “we are we are we are” over and over again to develop the song.
Gambino had pre-released early drafts for both “Algorhythm” and “Time” during his This Is America Tour. To be honest, I think I preferred those, which is most likely why I find this album overproduced.
“Algorhythm” deals better with this treatment. Gambino’s vocals have a very industrial metal tone in his verses that add to the dystopian, doomsday mood of the song. However, the beat and hook are pretty good, and the verses on it are well-written and evocative.
On the other hand, “Time” simply does not hold up to the elements thrown at it. Ariana Grande’s guest vocals on the track easily upstage Gambino’s autotuned voice (which is a shame, because he has such a good singing voice). The beat has too much going on, and there is something radically wrong with the pacing.
The next song though — “12.38” (“Psilocybin”) — is perhaps the saving grace of the album. Gambino’s high vocals are very reminiscent of those on “Awaken, My Love!”. The song tells a braggadocious story over a relaxed minimalist beat, and the featured artists — 21 Savage, Kadjha Bonet and Ink — who appear in the second half add a lot to the music and balance Gambino’s slow pace. This song is a great example of his experimentation succeeding and is probably the best track on the album.
Sadly, “19.10” (“Hunted”), does not maintain this momentum. While the song delves into how the artist feels under public scrutiny and how fame affects his insecurities, the beat and tune are predictable and feel a little derivative of Gambino’s older works. The outro of this song leads into another slow track — “24.19” (“Sweet Thing/Thank You”). Gambino certainly hits those high notes — but the song is eight minutes long. And the eight minutes unnecessarily seem to stretch on far longer. The last minute is just the sound of someone running.
The song that comes after all this running, “32.22” (“Warlords”), is another lackluster track and makes you want to run away from listening to the album altogether. The mumbled words blasted with autotune over a tribal beat attempt to make the track sound like some form of war ritual, but the song adds nothing to the album and doesn’t seem to fit in at all.
But if you were to run a bit further, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by where you end up next. “35.31” (“Little Foot, Big Foot, Get Out The Way”) comes out of nowhere in the album, and seems misplaced with its cheerful tone. But it’s a good song. It disguises commentary about drug culture under a cheery country tune which almost sounds like “Old McDonald,” and it’s a fun stand-alone song. The outro of the song also introduces the next song, “39.28” (“Why Go To The Party?”), by singing some of the lines from it backwards. This song, like many of other tracks, could have been shortened to an interlude.
After this part of the album, hearing the first few bars of “Feels Like Summer” (here, “42.26”) comes as a blessing. We’ve heard this song before, we like it and it actually fits into the closest thing I can muster up as a theme for some of the songs in the album — a fear of the future that awaits humanity.
“47.48” (“The Violence”) continues with the mellower tunes of its preceding track. It’s a good song, but its best part is the outro in which Gambino talks to his son Legend Glover about what he loves. And I cannot stress this enough, the conversation is precious, and I would have loved it if the album ended on it.
Sadly, it didn’t. The final song, “53.49” (“Do What You Wanna Do”), ends the album with an energetic funk song. The aggressive vocals sound very much like an Anderson .Paak song. Despite the almost silly energy, the song has a good chorus and it ends the album on a good note.
While there aren’t any very terrible songs here (except maybe “Warlords”), most of the songs are just okay. While songs like “Sweet Thing” and “The Violence” are so close to being amazing, with the exception of “Psilocybin” and “Feels Like Summer,” no song on the album wowed me.
However, these songs being simply “good enough" is what makes the rest of the album worse, because there are certainly some great examples of how synth, pop, techno and funk can all come together really well if done right. It shows that Gambino’s experiment isn’t ill-conceived — it’s just ill-executed.
P.S. I still love you, Donald Glover, 3.15.20 and all.