Childish Gambino Taps Into the Zeitgeist and Enters a New State of Artistic Evolution With ‘3.15.20’
In the midst of an escalating global pandemic, establishments have shut their doors, and citizens have retreated to the refuge of their homes, bringing much of society to a standstill. Among the scant benefits we might credit to such catastrophe is a surfeit of new music from artists with extra time on their hands. The renaissance man that is Donald Glover treated fans to a surprise project, made available early Sunday, March 15 on his new website, www.donaldgloverpresents.com, where it streamed in a continuous loop, only to be suddenly pulled in the evening. It seemed Glover, like all responsible citizens now, was practicing “social distancing” in his own way — making an appearance, but taking care not to get too close. Judging from the severity of the music, the choice was a prudent one. The new content is easily among his most intense work, and even a slight tease goes a long way. The music has just made its way into an actual album, released under Glover’s musical moniker, Childish Gambino, and titled with the date of its original online release, “3.15.20.” Following the trends seen in 2016’s “Awaken, My Love,” the new recording strays further from traditional hip-hop, into increasingly experimental sonic territory and visionary subject matter.
Visitors to Glover’s website found themselves launched into the album at an arbitrary point, left subject to the continuous loop, without any notion of beginning or end. The lack of control, the susceptibility to external forces, paralleled the nature of the current pandemic, while the looping tumult recalled the sensational twenty-four hour news cycles that document the crisis. Now that the music finds an album release, there is a beginning and an end. However, Glover has preserved the general feeling of uncertainty, releasing the album with no cover art — just blank white, and naming eleven of the thirteen songs by just the time, in minutes and seconds, at which they occur in the recording. Again, it’s social distancing. You can find and play the songs. Yet, deprived of names by which to refer to them, you remain held at a distance. The songs, while often relatively open ended, seem uncannily appropriate for the present moment, in both style and subject matter, suggesting that Glover handpicked and curated a collection of previously written material for the present moment. The chosen title for the album, “3.15.20,” the day in which the album began streaming on Glover’s site, reinforces this idea, presenting the new music as a reflection of the times.
The promisingly titled “0.00,” hinting at a fresh beginning of sorts, places the mantra “we are” over droney, meditative sounds, trailing off into echoes, with washes of ambient noise building upon one another, as if approaching some sort of singularity. The simple, eponymous phrase is a succinct capturing of a theme that runs through the project — a strained search for our collective humanity in times of apocalyptic turbulence. “Algorhythm,” a definite standout, follows a glitchy, driving, distorted bassline, and finds Glover delivering lines in an ominous, baritone grunt, before letting loose into cathartic soul. “The algorithm is perfect,” a voice insists, over an oblique, angular soundscape that seems to mock the certainty of the claim. By the end, a monstrous layered, processed voice dissolves into a chaotic splattering of squeals and shrieks.
The Ariana Grande-featuring “Time,” teased in Glover’s 2019 film “Guava Island,” follows seamlessly, the sound of picking up scraps after a disaster. It trudges along to siren sounds, and Glover and Grande sing over the backdrop of pulsating thuds and flanging bass, with mismatched, gentle acoustic guitar strumming over it, sounding like an attempt to find peace and composure in havoc. The chilling lyrics include, “Seven billion people / Tryna free themselves.” In light of the rapidly increasing death tolls, it’s hard not to feel shivers from lyrics like “I can see it coming / But it’s moving fast.”
There are a few less apocalyptic moments, most notably the all-star cut “12.38,” which places Glover along 21 Savage and SZA. Sonically, there is still some of the overriding chaos in this deconstructed, detuned R&B track, with vague echoes of Slum Village in its instrumental stylings. A free-flowing, whimsical anecdote of an intimate encounter, the track stands out for the thrilling chemistry of the talent on display. Glover fills his lines with references to African American cultural figures like N. K. Jemisin and bell hooks. By the end, the song has launched into the stratosphere, with spacey, echoing funk veering off into trails, with pitch-shifting stutters and sci-fi rings and bleeps.
Many people are unaware that the wearing of surgical masks primarily prevents one from spreading, rather than catching, Covid-19. The constant tally of the healthy and infected makes one unsettlingly aware of the see-saw dynamic to human happiness. Glover zeroes in on this in “19.10,” reflecting, “To be happy really means that someone else ain’t… Everything is give and take.” Still, he endeavors to find positivity in the murky environment. “24.19” is a haunting, eerie grind, full of clinks and clatter, and bass that swells and dissolves into a sea of meshing tones. The treated voices, at once human and artificial, raise questions about what exactly is human. At the end, however, harp trills and beaming organ create a backdrop for Glover to go full Otis Redding, howling in an ecstatic bout of passion, “I wanna say thank you / Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah / ‘Cause I love you.”
When nature suddenly reminds us how fragile we really are, our primal, animalistic qualities have a way of showing themselves. “32.22” captures this magnificently, in a tribal, percussive war stomp. Glover pants heavily, strained and winded, over faint drones, then escalates into full screaming and squelching in alien intonations, over a ceremonial soundscape. This is Glover gone far, far leftfield. The primitive sentiment finds an entirely different outlet in “35.31,” a jaunty, country-influenced stomp, like nothing else on the record. The wild blend of styles recalls Andre 3000, and the combination of the chord progressions and Glover’s melodies coincidently approaches something like Motown. The elemental essence comes in the repetition of “Little foot, bigfoot, get out the way / I’ma show y’all how to move this yay.” It would make an appropriate soundtrack to the current grocery store stampedes. And if this isn’t already a little too fitting for current affairs, you can take solace in “39.28?” All the concerts, festivals, and events have been canceled, and people who work in the nightlife industry are searching for work in increasingly outlandish ways. Amid all this tumult, Glover dons full seventies, Queen-esque, ornate choral stylings, to remind us, “Why go to the party at all?”
The previously released “Feels Like Summer,” originally released in July 2018, makes its way into the new set, now under the name of “42.26,” and unlike most of the other tracks, comes off a bit ironic. The deceptively sunny tune refers to summertime crime spikes, speculated to occur because people leave home more often, leaving their homes more susceptible to theft. In this light, one might find oneself newly appreciative of having to work at home. Moreover, the lyrics feature warnings about overpopulation, and as grotesque as circumstances are, it seems nature has a way of balancing things out. Of course, this is immensely disturbing, but Glover addresses this pointedly on “47.48” Mindfulness meditation has never been as popular as it is today, and the madness sweeping the glove makes it quite clear why.
The aforementioned track stands out as it best encapsulates the artist’s growth over the years. For the first time, we get a glimpse of Donald Glover, the family man. Of course, “3.15.20” was released under the Childish Gambino persona, but considering that guest arists aren’t listed on the tracklist — “12.38” was a song by Childish Gambino featuring 21 Savage and SZA — “47.48” could very well be a song by Childish Gambino featuring Donald Glover. The song’s outro features a conversation between Glover and his son Legend, in which Glover asks, “What do you love?” Legend rattles off the names of his family members, and himself for good measure, in a baby voice so priceless that it eclipses all the darkness elsewhere in the album. Glover builds on the positive momentum in “53.49,” professing, “There is love in every moment,” although in a crazed call and response, his animated aggression seconded by a distorted, sonic doppelganger.
Donald Glover has always been conspicuously ahead of his peers in contemporary hip-hop. It was only a matter of time before he transcended that scene altogether. This isn’t to say he has abandoned his roots. On the contrary, he exhibits such a mastery of them that he no longer remains confined to their readily recognizable forms. Elements of hip-hop abound in the new work, but as abstractions, meshed with references to decades’ worth of disparate musical styles. Glover focuses on singing, and soars to new heights, having grown by leaps and bounds vocally, and channeling the great soul giants. He’s more sonically adventurous than ever before, indulging in fearless, radical experiments of abrasive, edgy, psychedelic funk. Having long demonstrated both an adept social consciousness and a knack for acute premonition, his latest marvel rings like the stuff of prophecy.
“3.15.20” is available March 22 on Apple Music.