By Alexander Szeptycki
Childish Gambino is hamstrung by ambition, but 3.15.20 still contains a bevy of enjoyable songs, including one or two tracks that brush against brilliance.
Donald Glover’s music career, for better or worse, has revolved around a high-minded conceptualism. As Childish Gambino, he has dabbled in punchline rap, straightforward R&B, and Parliament-inspired funk and soul, all the while weaving in themes dealing with blackness, youth, and fatherhood. This commitment to musical auteurship has often proven to be both a blessing and a curse. At his best, Gambino sounds enlightened; at worst, he comes off as self-righteous.
On his latest effort, 3.15.20, Gambino serves up a bit of both sides. Pieced together from unreleased singles and songs previously performed on his This Is America tour, the album is (unsurprisingly?) a mixed bag, an attempt to create a statement out of fusing R&B and hip-hop with pop experimentation and digital noise. Gambino’s intent is to interrogate the intersection of humanity and technology. But the tracks feel tossed together rather than thematically unified. Sill, when Gambino isn’t hamstrung by ambition 3.15.20 contains a bevy of enjoyable songs, including one or two tracks that brush against brilliance.
3.15.20’s structure is guided by its conceptual design. It is as a continuous stream of music, connected by short vocal and instrumental interludes. Gambino goes to great lengths, through these transitions, to bind the tracks together, to unify his musical themes. At times, this works perfectly, such as on the segue from “Algorhythm” to “Time.” The first song ends with a choir that slowly devolves into cacophony, as clashing voices and jagged, electronic drums rise in volume and intensity. Just when the noise wears out its welcome, it cuts out, leaving behind a slow, syncopated drum beat. This becomes the foundation for “Time,” the next track. This transition is slick and well made. At other times, though, the interludes feel unnecessary. On the otherwise fine “35.31,” Gambino ends the track with a chorus from the next song — only it is played backwards. This choice feels a little too clever for its own good — to the point of being trite. It’s moments like these that undercut the album’s strengths.
Nothing on the album typifies this clumsiness better than “Algorhythm,” the second track. Here Gambino heavily underlines his message. Over the course of two verses, he raps about technological advancement, humanity, and how these two forces clash. This is a provocative idea, to be sure, but the lyrics flounder. Gambino dive-bombs into cliché, singing “Pressure is to evolve, take a bite of the apple/We crush it into the sauce, how do we know the cost?” These overwrought metaphors are delivered in a deep, overly serious growl, but that doesn’t make them any less superficial. But when the song moves to the chorus, Glover relaxes, calling on us to dance to the tune’s bouncy rhythm. The radical change in tone — from pretentious to playful — is skillfully accomplished. The transformation is representative of the album’s erratic quality. When Gambino gets out of his worried head long enough to remember to make good songs, he makes good songs.
Indeed, the best moments on this project stand on their own. “Time” is a soaring highlight. Glover combines heavy, techno-inspired drums with an ethereal acoustic guitar riff, a combination that’s vaguely reminiscent of Flaming Lips–era psych. The track’s vocals are gospel-inspired and delightfully rhythmic. Flanked by a church choir, Glover sings about facing the fact he only has so much time to spend on earth. Elsewhere, on “19.10,” Gambino makes use of an upbeat, synth-heavy instrumental in order to discuss black trauma through the lens of fatherly advice. “To be beautiful is to be hunted/I can’t change the truth, I can’t get you used to this,” he warns, dispensing troubling knowledge with a smile. Yes, this track carries some topical heft, but this time around it doesn’t hamper the music-making.
Toward its back half 3.15.20 can’t hold the tension between music and message together. Glover is obviously beginning to run out of ideas, but he still tries to drum some up. The resulting tracks feel incomplete, fragmented. “24.19” is an obvious offender, an overly sappy ballad that gives us Glover repeatedly crooning “sweet thing” over a simple guitar instrumental that, over the course of seven minutes, doesn’t go anywhere interesting. The song overstays its welcome. The next track, “32.22,” is hampered by poor mixing. Glover’s voice is far too quiet in the mix; you can’t hear what he is saying. When he does bring up the volume, his voice is smothered in so many digital effects it’s unintelligible. The instrumental, an industrial hip-hop throwaway, is just as muddled. This is noise for the sake of noise. The album’s latter tracks are marred by this kind of confusion. Glover is stretching to provide deeper truths — and they aren’t there.
3.15.20’s splendid finale goes a long way toward redeeming the album. “42.26,” previously released as “Feels Like Summer,” injects a welcome note of calmness. Resplendent piano and delicate drums pepper the mix. Yes, Glover is still singing about the world’s ills, but now he is concerned with having us slow down. The song’s mantra provides just the tranquility Glover is talking about. After a throwaway tune comes the excellent “53.49,” a track that would be the perfect finale to the album that Gambino had in mind — but didn’t pull off. “There is love in every moment under the sun/I did what I wanted to,” he sings. It comes off as both a victorious cry and a piece of advice. This joyously energetic track is emblematic of the enigmatic talents of Donald Glover. He is more than capable of creating a masterpiece — if he doesn’t get too lost in his own ideas.
Alex Szeptycki is a student from Charlottesville, Virginia, currently studying at Stanford University. He is majoring in American Studies, with a focus in Contemporary Art and Media. He is currently finishing up his senior year, before looking to pursue a career in writing or the arts.