Donald Glover is in a very unique position.
Starting off as a stand-up comedian and a writer for the TV show “30 Rock,” he eventually became a hit comedic actor in his own right on the cult classic “Community” as well as his own successful stand-up special “Donald Glover: Weirdo.” Since then, he has done many amazing things such as create and star in his own surreal comedy-drama series “Atlanta” and even managed to insert himself as an integral part of Spider-Man and his surrounding universe. In between these many things, he released some singles, EPs, and albums under the moniker of Childish Gambino.
His music has since become the thing he is most well known for, which was odd because it started off being viewed as almost a side project of his. However, with the release of his impressive third album in 2016, “Awaken, My Love!” he managed to establish his music as his primary art form. On that album, he strayed away from being a rapper and stuck only to singing. The style of the album is a throwback to old school soul and funk which made the album sound fresh in a musical landscape that seemed to stray further away from those sounds. What’s even odder is that the album only seemed to blow up a year after due to the “sleeper hit” success of the single “Redbone.” It was so big it earned several Grammy nominations almost two years after its initial release.
Childish Gambino has since become not only one of the biggest names in modern pop music but someone who is admired by musicians and critics alike. His 2018 singles earned radio play as well as respect and acclaim. One of those singles, “This Is America,” even spawned a national conversation through its music video.
Yet despite all this, Glover does not drop music frequently, 2018 was an unorthodox year for him in which he was very active. In 2019, he went away for a while. He stated that he would be retiring his musical persona and went AWOL off all social media. Later that year, he returned to star in “The Lion King” remake and state that he was no longer retiring Gambino.
This is why I state that Donald Glover is in a very unique position, he has managed to maintain his renaissance man antics while still being heralded as both a pop giant and a well-respected artist. He could even mysteriously disappear for a bit, and the world would still be eating out of his hand.
Then on March 15 of 2020, Glover dropped a new album – his first in four years. He dropped it only on one website, donaldgloverpresents.com, and played it on loop for a few hours before taking it completely off. What was this? Was this his final album? Was it even a Childish Gambino album? Was it a mixtape? People were talking about it all week.
And then on March 22 of 2020, the album came out on all streaming platforms, under the Childish Gambino moniker no less. The album was called “3.15.20.”
“3.15.20” is a confused album. It seems to want to be an experimental record while also still being a mainstream pop album. It seems divided between what it wants to be and how it wants to put out; what it relays. It doesn’t help that most of the songs are only labeled as the timestamps they appear at while two of the more obvious singles off the album have full titles.
Childish Gambino has always had this issue, particularly on his second album “Because The Internet.” “Because The Internet” is an overly long album that takes itself too seriously making it a difficult listen to get all the way through. However, despite this, some of Gambino’s best songs appear on this album. The moody dreamscapes of “Flight Of The Navigator” and “Shadows” mixed with the catchy pop-rap feels of “3005” and “Sweatpants” make for some masterful crafting that were enough to win people over into his fanbase. But a majority of the album is a slog repeating the same themes in the most dramatic ways possible, as James Brown would say, “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.” “3.15.20” shares a lot of these same problems.
We start off with the intro song, “We Are” (most of these songs don’t have titles so I’m going to do us all a favor and stick to the most repetitive phrase in the song as the title). “We Are” begins with some brief static noise and then some silence, before going into a very autotuned mantra over some ambient synthesizers. The mantra is “we are” repeated three times. Slowly, a very nice and subtle piano comes in for a brief second, it’s a nice intro but it feels unnecessary, as most of the album is not this calm or relaxing.
The album finally starts on “Algorhythm,” one of only two songs to actually have a title. My god, if he just opened on this, it would have been amazing. “Algorhythm” is a dark synth-funk song that has some of the weirdest and most out-there Gambino vocals that have ever been done. Gambino’s voice sounds like a robot, so emotionless, cold and one-note. The robotic voice fits the bleak atmosphere that this song has, and when he sings in his usual manner on the hook, it makes it sound even more triumphant. You can dance to and enjoy this song as much as you can be afraid of it. The song ends on some well placed tribal screams and glitching off time electronic drums. It’s almost as if a tribe of robot natives has come to attack and ambush you in your ears.
This segues very well into what, in my opinion, is the most polarizing track: “Time.” “Time” is a song that probably falls the most victim to how confused this album is in its tone. It’s a bright uplifting pop song with acoustic guitars, an auto-tuned chorus, and a gospel choir, yet it also has distorted drum programming and the occasional noisy out of tune synthesizer. It’s apocalyptic pop music, but it doesn’t seem to want to fully set in to either vibe. Ariana Grande makes a surprise feature on this song, and she actually sounds more in tune with it than Gambino does (which is odd for me to say because I am not usually an Ariana Grande fan by any means). It doesn’t help that this song is also for some reason, six minutes in length, meaning that as this track goes on, you grow to hate it’s weird 80s pop vibes even more. This track could have been something great, but it instead is a complete miss off this album.
But then we get into the next track which is one of the best off the album. Childish Gambino’s voice here sounds so amazing and unique, the weirdest it’s sounded since “Have Some Love” off the “Awaken, My Love!” album. This track is not quite rap and not quite R&B – it falls somewhere in between, as Gambino goes between rapping and singing every second on this song in a manner similar to Anderson .Paak or a weirder Prince song. The beat is so amazing too, and when the song switches in the middle to get some words from psychedelic soul singer Khadja Bonet, it gets even better. 21 Savage even gets a verse at the end too, which compliments the track very nicely, meaning that it justifies its almost 7-minute track length. Very good track, this one. If only it had a name I could reference it by, other than a timestamp (12.38) or a track number.
After this the album swerves into a very weird section, both of these next two tracks feel like we’ve heard them before. The first of the two is an upbeat dance anthem contemplating over the concept of being beautiful in society, and the latter song is a half-baked attempt to recreate an “Awaken, My Love!” style love ballad. Both miss the mark, just barely, but what doesn’t help them (despite the fact that they are both over 5 minutes) is that they seem like they are wrapping an album up. One of the two even spends half the track length to say “thank you” over and over again. Why put an outro type track in the middle of the album?
What’s even weirder is that the track after this feels like it could have worked as an amazing opener. It’s loud, it’s distorted, Gambino is shouting into his auto-tune creating this unique sound I can’t really trace back to anything else. It continues with the vibe the outro of “Algorhythm” had. It’s monstrous, it’s as comparable to dissonant experimental music like Suicide as it is to afrobeat. God damn it, if only this track had a name other than a timestamp cause this is one of the best fucking songs of the year!
Then we get into what could be called “Little Foot, Big Foot.” What the fuck is this? It’s like a weird kinda country trap pop blues hybrid. Had they put a little more work into this song it could have been a weird banger but instead it just kind of exists. The mixing doesn’t help it either, which is a problem that a huge portion of this album has and I don’t remember the original web stream having this issue. What it does have going for it, however, is that it transitions very well into the next track, which could be called “Why Go To The Party?” This track probably shouldn’t work but yet it does, the inverse problem of “Little Big Foot, Big Foot.” Sounding like a Queen song, with its dramatic vocal layers and piano, it instantly becomes one of the better tracks on the album simply because it ends before it overstays its welcome.
After that, we get a familiar face in “Feels Like Summer” although it’s not called that here, instead it’s just labeled with a timestamp. We’ve all heard this song before, “Feels Like Summer” is a great song, one of Gambino’s best. This version however is mixed badly, what a shame. Just download the single version instead.
The album ends on a strong note with two of its best tracks. Again, although they have no real titles. I’m going to call them “The Violence” and “Under The Sun.” Both of these songs are jaw-droppingly great funk tracks that manage to still sound fresh and not like an “Awaken, My Love!” retread. “The Violence” has Gambino’s best lyrics on the album as he reflects on the world around him and how it affects the younger generation. He tells them not to worry about tomorrow and instead to just pay attention to the now. He manages to go full storyteller mode without sounding absolutely self-righteous, which is hard to do and is something Gambino should be given praise for. Oh-so-often, he manages to sound unequipped to deal with the people around him in his art, and here he manages to do so in a manner almost comparable to Marvin Gaye on his landmark “What’s Going On” album. “Under The Sun” is an insane joyous romp featuring Gambino shout-rapping in an almost P-Funk sense. When the chorus hits, I feel as if I’m transcending to another plane. Everything about this song is perfect, and it’s a madcap way to close the record. Voices flow in and out – some natural, some pitched up – and when the choir comes in at the end, its tastefully used. The track sounds fun yet also paranoid. These two tracks put faith that maybe Gambino will do better next time if he does come back.
Despite the amazing ending, it’s not enough to make up for the sins that we just heard. This album would be a lot better, in my opinion, had Gambino committed to one vision. If he wanted to make a ballsy experimental album that’s all one giant song, then he should have just done it and taken the singles off if needed. Instead, we get this weird cross between superstar Childish Gambino and artist Donald Glover which feels under-thought and hastily put together. “3.15.20” is a sloppy album but had it stayed true to itself (or even was just mixed better), it could have been one of Glover’s best works.