On his FX show Atlanta, Donald Glover and company have mastered the art of wrapping the political in a veil of surreal comedy and a distinct lack of concern. It’s a show where little happens, and yet says more about race and class in America than a whole month of The Daily Show. Take the skit about a black teenager who wants to transition into “a 35 year old white man” or the quite horrific season two scene where a frat boy tries to impress rapper Paperboi by eulogising Pimp C as “one of the last true prophets” while smoking a joint in front of a confederate flag.
When asked about white people watching the show Glover said to The New Yorker that “I want them to really experience racism, to really feel what it’s like to be black in America… the characters aren’t smoking weed all the time because it’s cool but because they have P.T.S.D.—every black person does. It’s scary to be at the bottom, yelling up out of the hole, and all they shout down is ‘Keep digging! We’ll reach God soon!”.
I mention all of this before even arriving at Glover’s new album as Childish Gambino because this is the new mould of his music too. Just like there is no scene in Atlanta where Earn turns to the camera to eulogise about race in America, there are no protest songs on 3.15.2020, and nor do I think he wanted these songs to be more than jams if the listener didn’t want them to be – but this music is also very much a product of the world as it stands in 2020. Each song is captivatingly performed and joyously produced, and yet like Prince’s ‘Paisley Park’, each is haunted by a concern we see recited in the news daily. There’s a 21 Savage-featuring ode to psilocybin, ’39.28’ is an acapella exploration of isolation and then there’s previously-released bop ‘Feels Like Summer’; a sweaty climate change panic button in disguise. ’19.10’ is a deliciously grimy jam with some incredibly tasteful keyboard embellishments, but its chorus “to be beautiful is to be hunted” effortlessly taps into a whole culture predicated on that new most valuable commodity: your image, your own personal brand.
The pandemic with which we all now live couldn’t be a more opportune situation in which to launch his fourth LP, as the whole world has come to resemble Atlanta’s surreal comedy. We’re living through the closest we’ve come to a genuinely apocalyptic scenario since the end of the cold war. For most part that looks less like Lord of the Flies, and more like a whole nation sat on their sofa posting hand-washing memes to Twitter.
Rather than go the route of To Pimp A Butterfly, which wore its political intentions brazenly on its iconic album art, this record is already notorious for the absence of anything of that kind. It has no cover, is named after the date of its release and all but two of the tracks are just the timestamp at which they begin, with nothing to speak for the music but the music itself. It’s not hard to see why: this hallucinatory, distracted album works best as a pop musique concrète; a whole sonic world to get lost in with all of the beauty and anxieties which come with it. All of it is incredibly listenable and creative; a joyous R&B and funk record with plenty of humour and psychedelia to boot.
As a fan of longer song lengths, this LP is a treat: most run past five minutes and aren’t afraid to explore deep inside their grooves – but this is still the man who made ‘Sober’, ‘3005’ and ‘Redbone’ and indeed the album is covered in bright pop hooks. Prince is an obvious reference point, but more so is the Hot Buttered Soul of Isaac Hayes, who’s towering songs could run a dozen minutes in length, and the D’Angelo production camp, where new instruments and vocal riffs appear for just a fleeting sections of songs and then vanish.
The whole album works off such tradeoff’s in subject and style. The aforementioned ’19.10’ ends with some perturbing bass womps and Glover indulging in some Khoisan clicks, and ’24.19’ closes with a full minute of anxiety-ridden panting. But amongst these dread-filled interludes, deeply personal moments are cooked into the music. ’24.19’ begins with its head stuck in a fog of lust, but the clouds soon part and Ludwig Göransson channels the gospel keys of George Michael as Glover sings “thank you!” to his new wife. It’s hard to believe that as Gambino he once only sung during the hooks of his rap cuts as he’s a preternaturally gifted vocalist, not only performing his own backing vocals in some very colourful intonations but conveying passion without breaking a sweat.
The second moment of personal insight is ’47.48’. The opening lines speak of a “little girl, thriteen, broke down the violence”. This word, violence, is a sentiment which spans all of these songs: an unspecified threat, maybe not physical, but present nonetheless. But at the end of the song Glover pulls a Stevie and brings his son on the track – they speak for a moment, and the boy asks his father if he loves himself. His presence is legitimately moving, and his cherubic voice appears in the music as the salvation he himself presumably represents in his father’s private life: a shelter from the violence.
As I write this alone in a quarantined flat which I’ve barely left for a week, with stock markets tanking as an unstoppable virus works its way through our species, I’m tapping my foot to this strange, bright music, which refuses to stop dancing even with anxiety cooked into it’s very DNA. It’s not revolutionary or even that political, it’s just the first album of our new normal.
Words by Liam Inscoe – Jones.