Polymath, renaissance man, rapper
Childish Gambino, the multi-talented musician, dropped a new album. His fascinating new work pushes every boundary and can leave you spell-bound
On Sunday, 15 March, Donald Glover Jr, better known by his stage name Childish Gambino, launched a new website called Donaldgloverpresents.com and released a new album, which streamed on a loop on the site for most of that day. There was no fanfare; no announcements; no publicity.
For an artist as high-profile as Glover, this was an unusual approach. Or was it to be expected? Glover is what you could call a polymath in the entertainment business. He’s a writer, comedian, producer, director, DJ and actor. Star Wars aficionados would know him from his role as Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story. But, most of all, he’s a musician.
Shortly after his new website stopped streaming the album and went blank, Glover’s, or, rather, Gambino’s, new album got more conventionally released on music-streaming services where you can hear it now. It has no title except the date of release, 3.15.20; no artwork; and except for the second and third songs, Algorhythm and Time, none of the 12 tracks has a title. Instead, Gambino has chosen to title his tracks by time codes—the points in time that they come up on the album. For instance, the first track is labelled 0.00; the fourth is 12.38; the fifth 19.10; the sixth 24.19; and so on. A whimsical gimmick? Of course. But it would be easy to dismiss it as just that if it was not Gambino’s album. Because 3.15.20 is an astounding piece of work.
Gambino’s career began as a sketch comedian in the early 2000s when he was attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, from where he obtained a degree in dramatic writing. Soon afterwards, he found a job as a writer on Tina Fey’s NBC series, 30 Rock. Later, he starred in the NBC sitcom Community. By then he had also embarked on a career as a rapper, releasing mixtapes, performing live and collaborating with other musicians. It would be inaccurate, however, to describe Gambino as a rapper or hip hop artist.
Take 3.15.20. It’s an astonishingly experimental album on which Gambino is, in parts, a rapper, a soul, funk and R&B guy, and a sonic innovator who composes melodies and harmonies and melds them to make songs that push every boundary. In 2018, he had released a single titled This Is America, a song (accompanied by a video that shows him shooting a gun at a choir) in which he raps and addresses gun violence in the US and the racial tensions that African-Americans face. As a director and actor, Glover stars in the FX series Atlanta, about two cousins trying to make it in the music scene in that city in the US state of Georgia. In 2019, he headlined the music and arts festival Coachella.
It is difficult also to try and list out the number of albums Gambino has released. 3.15.20 is his fourth full-length studio album but he has released numerous mixtapes—including ones that tweak and tinker with the music of other artists, such as Sufjan Stevens and Fiona Apple. In addition, he has EPs, singles and has appeared on the albums and videos of numerous other musicians.
But the 3.15.20 album is a good place to start exploring the music of Gambino. It’s a super ambitious album that traverses so many genres and styles that it would require multiple listens to try and list out or even describe. Funk and soul collide with electronic music; modern hip hop gets to mate with elaborate orchestral arrangements; and smart lyrics comment on the state of the world and other serious issues.
On Algorhythm, Gambino cautions about the limits on personal freedom; on Time, Ariana Grande (one of several artists who appear uncredited on the album) joins him as he sings: Seven billion people/ Tryna free themselves/ Said a billion prayers/ Tryna save myself/ I can see it coming/ But it’s moving fast.
That song, about despair but also about hope, could seem uncannily timely as the pandemic scourge of covid-19 swarms across the world. But then there are tracks on 3.15.20 that could take you to other places. One of them sounds eerily like a riff-laden jam by the late artist Prince; another one (on which his young son, Legend, is also featured) comments on the tragic killings of schoolchildren; and although these are mainly new songs that have never been released, Gambino juxtaposes them with samples or full renditions of some of his older tunes that fans are bound to recognize. So, songs such as Warlords and Feels Like Summer reappear but this time with no titles, only the numbers to designate at what time on the album they feature.
Gambino produced his new album with a number of producers and DJs but prominent among them is his long-time collaborator, the Swedish producer Ludwig Göransson, a conductor and composer who has worked with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and Haim. The sheer range of genres, themes and styles on 3.15.20 is fascinating. There are songs about the falsity of digital utopia; there are tracks that seethe with political indignation; and others that deal with drug-dealing and related crimes.
Coming as it does during difficult times, 3.15.20 could be the perfect album to spend locked-down days with. It’s a set of tracks that make you think, but also give you hope to be cheerfully optimistic. Glover’s projects—whether they are in acting, production or comedy—have always been anticipated eagerly by his fans. With 3.15.20, he has not disappointed them. Entertainment’s renaissance man has done it once again.
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five tracks from Childish Gambino to bookend this week
1. ‘Time’ from ‘3.15.20’
2. ‘35.31’ from ‘3.15.20’
3. ‘47.48’ from ‘3.15.20’
4. ‘Redbone’ from ‘Awaken My Love!’
5. ‘This Is America’ (a single)
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
Twitter - @sanjoynarayan