Childish Gambino aims high and misses on ‘3.15.20’
Ryan Israel | Wednesday, March 25, 2020
If our consideration of Donald Glover isn’t narrowed down to one, two or three of his many titles, it is nearly impossible to cover his entire body of work in an article of reasonable length.
At the same time, though, it’s hard to contextualize Glover’s early musical work (released under the moniker Childish Gambino) without acknowledging his start as a comedian and his role as an actor on NBC’s “Community.” The hits of that era — “3005,” “Sober” and “Bonfire” — belong in a time capsule (or playlist) from the early 2010s, pulled out only for dorm parties and high school reunions and played alongside Chance the Rapper’s first three “mixtapes.”
Likewise, Glover’s award-winning television show, “Atlanta,” only makes sense if one knows about his real-life experience in the rap industry. And the socially-conscious elements and visual direction of “Atlanta” shed light on “This Is America,” the timely and scathing music video that shook the world — or, at least, these United States — in 2017. Other pieces of the Glover puzzle, like his role as Lando Calrissian in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” the funky, R&B record “Awaken, My Love” and the (unfortunately) lackluster musical film “Guava Island,” don’t fit as neatly.
The newest addition to Glover’s body of work, the album “3.15.20,” falls somewhere between his best and his worst — although, granted, his worst isn’t awful.
“3.15.20” is an album stripped of all the customary decorations. Its cover is a solid square of white; all of the tracks save two are titled according to their start time; it even lacks a proper album title, with “3.15.20” referring to the date the project was made available — although only for a short time — on Glover’s website. The overall display is reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s “untitled, unmastered,” although the effect is different. Instead of giving the album an unfinished or unpolished nature, the bare presentation of “3.15.20” places all of the focus on the music, letting the album’s weighty topics and futuristic production speak for themselves.
The “big issues” — climate change, water scarcity, the effects of technology on the human condition and the fact that bees are dying at an alarming rate — are the dominating themes of “3.15.20.”
Early tracks “Algorhythm” and “Time” explore the lack of meaning in a world where algorithms dictate our lives and time is never ending; their urgent and chaotic electronic production heightens the tension. Late album tracks “42.26” (originally titled “Feels Like Summer”) and “47.48” touch on climate change and violence, respectively.
These are the problems that plague humanity, yet are often ignored in favor of lighter subjects, and it’s important for those with an audience to address these issues unapologetically. Unfortunately, they’re not fun to talk or, really, to think about. Maybe it’s the extreme circumstances into which the album was released (read: the virus) already foster an abundance of anxiety and fear — or maybe Glover’s approach just lacks resonance, but the best songs from “3.15.20” are the carefree ones.
“12.38,” a 6 minute new-wave R&B track, finds Glover playfully reminiscing about a mushroom trip. To make things even stranger (and better), 21 Savage comes in with a phenomenal verse and proves once again that he can rap over any beat and still sound cool doing it. “35.31” puts a typical rap narrative over twangy, country-inspired production to great effect while staying far away from the likes of “Old Town Road.”
Glover shies away from no genre or sound, drawing from dance, electronic, funk, R&B, soul and hip-hop alike. The album’s production is a highlight, although it often begins to feel exaggerated and overdone when the tracks run too long.
A majority of the songs feature ambient and spacey extended outros, contributing to their lengthy runtimes but also setting up beautifully smooth transitions from one track to the next. Unfortunately, these musical addendums ultimately end up detracting from the coherence and message of the individual tracks. The panic-inducing conclusion to “24.19,” which is largely a set-up for the urgent and aggressive “32.22,” detracts from the first track’s otherwise sweet and love-y qualities. Of course, this isn’t to slander the adorably cute outro to the funky “47.48,” which features a conversation between Glover and his young son Legend. On the whole, though, these endings miss the mark.
The album, as a whole, misses too. Its goal is a lofty one — to push forward both musical sound and social awareness at once — and it doesn’t miss by much, but it ultimately fails to leave a lasting impression.
Artist: Childish Gambino
Label: RCA Records
Favorite tracks: “12.38,” “35.31”
If you like: Tyler, the Creator, “Star Wars”
Shamrocks: 3 out of 5