Updated: 6 days ago
Author: Sam Seliger
The 2010’s were good for Donald Glover. Like, really good. When the decade started, he was already an acclaimed comedian for his work as a writer on Tina Fey’s sitcom “30 Rock.” By its end, he had two Emmy’s for his show “Atlanta,” held major roles in several big-budget films, released three highly successful albums and won four Grammys for his viral music video “This is America.”
For years, excitement had been building for Glover’s follow-up to his last full-length album, “Awaken, My Love,” released in 2016 under the name Childish Gambino, which he uses for his musical endeavors. That album saw him depart from the cartoonish rap music of his early work in favor of 70’s-style funk a la George Clinton. Stoking that anticipatory fire was Glover’s surprise music video “This Is America,” a brilliant statement on gun violence, mass media and racial identity overflowing with visual references and hidden statements and loaded with musical guest stars.
Given the tremendous expectations, it makes sense that Glover wants to scale back. “3.15.20” was initially released as a continuous loop on his website, with no promotion, no lead singles and no prior warning. The album cover is plain white, and, for the most part, the songs have no titles.
Glover delves into stories about love, relationships, identity and society with a refreshing lack of cohesion that allows each song to stand on its own thematically. While it is as ambitious as any of Glover’s other work, he expresses his artistry with 12 excellent, independent songs from one sonic pallet, instead of one album-length narrative.
Musically, Glover evolves his early-70’s funk to include synthesizers and 80’s-style bounce, as well as incorporating the gospel and trap influences he showed with “This Is America.”
The new Gambino sound is evident from the start, with the opening couplet of “Algorhythm” and “Time,” the only two songs not named for their timestamps. The first is an experimental synth-funk --- full of glitchy electronics, where Glover raps in a rough voice about how technology is robbing humanity of freedom and individuality. The second is a duet with pop diva Ariana Grande layered in effects and punctuated by clicking percussion. It momentarily clarifies into a group vocal chorus pondering the nature of life in a world that keeps moving forward, before diving back into modulated vocals and ad-libs.
Glover uses that technique of building into a moment of clarity for a guest vocalist to great effect on the following track, “12.38,” where 21 Savage bursts through a wandering sexual escapade-turned-surprise magic mushroom trip with a bouncy verse of flexing and achievement, before guest vocalist Ink wakes up the next morning.
Glover’s decision to make each song its own individual world allows his creativity to shine. Unbeholden to any larger scheme, he can make each second of music reflect the ideas and emotions of the moment at hand.
This freedom means that songs often mutate as they progress. “24.19” is a mellow love ballad that begins with acoustic guitar but morphs constantly over the course of its eight-minutes. Pitch-shifted vocals sing in elastic harmony as percussion chimes away. Bouncing bass kicks in, punctuated by spare electric guitar lines as Glover sings the chorus. Each verse has a different feeling to it, as Glover moves from highlighting his partner as his better half to singing how much he loves her.
In the song’s second half, it again morphs, this time into a mellow retro-style soul, as Glover’s multi-tracked voice sings different parts of a refrain of “thank you, ‘cause I love you,” and punctuates it with vocal ad-libs. The sonic clarity communicates a deep authenticity as Glover speaks from his heart to the woman he loves.
On the relaxed, funky “47.48,” Glover stresses living in the present amid a world that is breaking down. In each verse, Glover addresses a character living in fear, before offering reassurance with the refrain of “don’t worry ‘bout tomorrow, the violence, the violence.” A choir of Glovers weave in and out of harmony over the gentle backbeat offering a reassuring sense of calm. In the extended instrumental break, warm electric piano and lush vocal harmonies serve as the backdrop of a soaring flute solo that guides into a clip of Glover and his young son discussing love and self love.
On what may be his last venture, Donald Glover takes his Childish Gambino outlet to new heights with a collection of artfully crafted individual songs. Not quite escapism, but not harsh realism either, “3.15.20” deals with feelings, a comforting and reassuring exploration in a challenging time.