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The Lead Review

Completely In The Present: The Future Blues Of Childish Gambino's 3.15.20
CJ Thorpe-Tracey , March 26th, 2020 09:51

How has Childish Gambino succeeded in being everything Kanye West claims to be (but isn't)? It may be all in the timing, finds CJ Thorpe-Tracey

Photo Credit: Pavielle Garcia

After 2018’s ferocious, uncompromising ‘This Is America’ became a global breakout hit, one might’ve expected Donald Glover to return with similar pent up force. Instead, the unheralded release of 3.15.20 brings us a languorous near-perfect album of future blues. That perfection may be all in the timing, though.

This is sort of Glover's fourth record, following Awaken, My Love! back in 2016. But Childish Gambino’s catalogue can be tricky to pin down, because he’s also burned through a pile of mixtapes, collaborations and low-key indie releases, even before his ‘official' debut in 2011. To cut through that mess, honestly, just start here.

Three or four goes into 3.15.20 and I cannot find a way not to embrace it as pure, shimmering brilliance. It fully has me. His whole music career, Glover has partnered with Swedish producer, co-writer and more recently in-demand film composer, Ludwig Göransson. Now, he adds DJ Dahi to the team, who has a bunch of progressive hit productions on his CV, from Kendrick Lamar to Vampire Weekend. With these two collaborators, Glover balances flavours like a world master, like a cartoon genius. Like Prince or Rene Redzepi at their best. So it's increasingly hard to fathom that Childish Gambino is just one facet of the fella’s creative output.

For the uninitiated: Glover wrote on 30 Rock, broke through as a comic actor on troubled but sometimes hilarious sitcom Community, played young Lando in Star Wars: Solo and he's still making fans wait impatiently for the delayed third season of his unique, gorgeous indie hip hop dramedy Atlanta (made for FX, coming in January 2021 apparently, scheduled that distant, even before the coronavirus outbreak).

Apart from two songs near the top of the record, ‘Algorhythm’ and ‘Time’ (with its intricate, refreshingly non-overwrought Ariana Grande contribution), tracks on 3.15.20 are titled with their time-code; namely their actual location in real time on the running order. Incongruously, it reminds me of how out-of-the-box clever it felt, years ago, when frenzied Yorkshire alt-rock band iForwardRussia! named all their songs different numbers. But here, Glover has more of a specific job for the odd naming trick: he’s locating us firmly in the now, even as the sonic palette will veer and sway across the ages. Large chunks of the record are futurist, with an audible digital-ish thrust to them. Meanwhile there is also a strain of vintage soul minimalism and (strong nods at Prince’s legacy again) the simple-seeming harmonies, falsetto vocal, dirty talk; all mushing into a timeless glory that could lose any contemporary resonance. So then it is the titling and the lyrical delivery that drag 3.15.20 back into the present moment.

In ’12.38’ he’s trying to get laid and ends up high on his girl’s shrooms, tripping. She laughs at him freaking out, while the gloopy beat channels Andre 3000. Man, I adore how these songs can be, say, thirsty as hell, yet ridiculously easily distracted, so they end up somewhere else entirely. It’s so casually on point with the way we communicate. There’s this intense forty second coda of orgasmically – fearful? – heavy breathing bolted onto ’24.19’ after the fadeout, melting into a monstrously fat bass loop that will underpin tribal belter ’32.22’. After that, ’35.31’ is a breakneck left-turn – though lightly rendered as pink meringue – into a chanting, sweetheart groove that made me imagine M.I.A. making a children’s album. Leaning into sparsity, there’s not much here. Couple of loops, thunky kick, muffled strum. Distant soulful backing vocal. Repetitive kids’ treat of a lyric. But it's an utterly globular front-stoop jam. Just amazing work. Apparently critics are mentioning Stevie Wonder a lot – and he's in the mix – but I have to flag the enduring spirit of Bill Withers’ lazy semi-acoustic conscious funk storytelling on ’42.26’ and especially ’47.48’. The closing moments, as he chats with his (real life) child, are so funny and affecting, it's the cutest undiluted re-tooling of Lizzo's self-empowerment message.

I think Donald Glover has a particular – peculiar – quality that raises Childish Gambino above his peers, apart from his intellect: he is a patient man. Within the act of music-making itself, I mean, not just career-wise or in his complex public persona (although it's there too, vividly, the more I think about it). Song after song on 3.15.20 share a near-spiritual kind of timely balance about them; even when filled with prosaic and profane concerns; even when the beat is crunchy as fuck; the lyrics filthy or angry. Everything happens in good time. If not much happens for a while, it’s correct that it didn't.

Don’t mistake this for saying 3.15.20 has tempo issues, or lacks immediacy. Here is driven, chanting, edgy, frazzled music. Horny and furious and chilled, with psychedelic complexity and urban minimalism. But stood at the centre, Glover achieves a supremely compelling sense of effortlessness. Nothing sounds like hard work, or a pose (except when it's meant to), even when markedly contrasting ingredients are collated into the same jam.

3.15.20 appeared the same week (day, even) that Taylor Swift was vindicated in her long-running dispute with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, who branded her a liar before the world, though it turns out it was them telling porkies. Why is that remotely relevant? Because Glover’s positioning in the culture and dazzling musical conjuring remind me of what Kanye claims to achieve but does not. 3.15.20 is visionary, funny, confounding, complex and simple, super easy on the ears, full of bangers, without once seeming brattish or self-obsessed or, ever, stupid. It weaves a hyper-potent magic spell, as Glover lazes around like a goon, then casually unwraps proverbial, sensual and social truth-bombs for the ages. Half a day’s listening, the familiar world falling apart, if you told me Donald Glover was the actual second coming of Christ, I’d barely raise an eyebrow. My one criticism is that he wrongly uses full-stops instead of colons for his numbered song titles. That’s not fucking dope.

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