Every Friday, ‘The Album Cycle’ reviews a handful of new releases.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK
Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love
Give it a first listen and you’d be forgiven for thinking Awaken, My Love! wasn’t a Childish Gambino record at all. Scrapping his now pretty famous freestyle flow of rap and replacing it with a majestic soul-funk, the man behind the persona, Donald Glover, has well and truly carved himself a place in the pantheon of innovative, emotionally honest records that have dropped this year.
Following his lead role in critically acclaimed comedy-drama Atlanta, and a casting success as Lando Calrissian in an upcoming Star Wars stand-alone film, “Awaken, My Love!” is another step in shaking off Glover’s well-established geeky image, by ditching the rap and settling into a new style in which he seems to have found his feet.
‘Bino’, as he is affectionately called some hard-core fans, has always had a self-reflexive side to his rap lyrics, peppering them with nerd-culture references and punchlines with the tempo and skill of a “real” rapper. This image, slowly built-up over the course of two studio albums, a couple of EPs, mixtapes and his portrayal of Troy Barnes in Community, is ceremoniously shrugged off track by track throughout Awaken, My Love! and replaced with one of a more, for the most part, serious musician. The introspective and self-aware facets of Childish Gambino have struggled to come off as genuine in the past, acting more like a mask to the true genius of Donald Glover underneath. This split in performer and persona has been blurring in recent years and it feels about time for Bino to assimilate into the ever more interesting personality of Glover.
Real standouts of the record are the slow burning introductory track ‘Me and Your Mama’, and mid-record love song ‘Redbone’, both released as singles before the record dropped on December 2nd. They also act as a welcome mat for those struggling to make the adjustment from rap-driven ‘Because the Internet’ and ‘STM MTN / Kauai’, as they are much easier to swallow than ‘Zombies’ or ‘California’, tracks which are poised to put new listeners off. The vocal editing on tracks like ‘California’ feels a little jarring for those of us used to Glover’s sweet and playful vocals on older tracks. It’s hard to take the lyrics seriously when they’re being sung in a voice one would use to mimic their sibling. Contrastingly, ‘Stand Tall’ shows off Glover’s voice, giving respite to those of us clinging to older tracks like ‘Sober’ and offering clear, smooth vocals. The track also offers up snippets of life as a black man in the United States of America, reinforcing themes from Atlanta.
Despite a lacking a number of standout tracks when played individually, they work in tandem together as a piece of music that should be listened in entirety to fully understand its themes. Listen to it as a whole and you’ll be hard pressed to pinpoint where one track ends and the next starts, creating a fluid listening experience that can leave you surprised and wondering where the last 44 minutes went when it finishes. Penultimate track ‘The Night Me And Your Mama Met’, although almost purely instrumental, demonstrates Glover’s ability to weave a story, giving a circular narrative to the record. Alluding to the opening track, it begins to wind down and melt into ‘Stand Tall’. As the record draws to an end, the music plays through the different styles of each track, summarising the new sound with gospel-esque back-up singers and a peppering of flute and funk guitar.
Glover’s closing lyrics echo in the ears, words of advice from father to newborn son with us as listeners merely overhearing the conversation. “Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall. If you are strong you cannot fall. There is a voice inside us all, so smile when you can.” – Damien Levi
Present day Neil Young operates like the musical equivalent of a wild-eyed streetcorner-dwelling lunatic, ranting incoherently at innocent passers-by. Earth, his first album of 2016, was ostensibly a live record showcasing some of his more ecologically-minded material. However, the songs were overdubbed in studio with choruses of wildlife and professional jingle singers. Somehow that batshit crazy concept was strangely affecting, which is not the case with his second album of the year Peace Trail. A rambling, mostly acoustic set, Young is backed by bass and drums, with his collaborators rarely seeming to know the songs, or even when they are in the middle of a take. That in itself is no problem – Young has often used the raggedness of his bands as a strength ever since the first incarnation of Crazy Horse – but the compositions themselves are underdeveloped and unfocused, meaning the enterprise never leaves the ground. Sure, Young’s strongest latter-day efforts don’t compare to classics such as After the Goldrush or Tonight’s the Night, but his sweet lunacy and unpredictability helped keep him from sounding like an aging hippy, lazily decrying the state of the world, which is unfortunately precisely how he sounds here. – Pete Douglas
P-Money – Live & Direct
He shares a name with a New Zealand hip-hop producer, but UK grime stalwart P-Money’s debut album reminds me of nothing so much as King Kapisi circa 2nd Round Testament – an uneasy mix of defensive/territorial battle-rhymes (a track’s actually titled ‘Fake Fans’!) with hyperconfident production forays into neighbouring genres. There’s also echoes of another artist starting with “P-“, as he’s got a Diddy-ish ability to transcend his slightly one-speed flow due to a rare managerial/’good game sense’ skill in utilising a dizzying array of guests and production styles in ways more nominally talented people never quite pull off – the deliciously pompous, cinematic swagger of ‘Mans Involved’’s posse-cut rhymes from Blacks, Little Dee, Jendor & Ruger segues straight into the rrrrrrrrrrrushy club-pop buzz of the Ruby Lee Rider-featuring ‘Contagious’, or pulling off both the paranoid Eski-goes-EDM of ‘Panasonic’ and the gregarious ‘Gunfingers’. A great companion to 2016 statement albums like Skepta’s Konnichiwa, and still the greatest MC to dismissively snort “dickhead” as punctuation. – Stevie Kaye
John Legend – Darkness and Light
Having built a decade-long career on absolute inoffensiveness both in content and in execution, John Legend is now a very wealthy, very successful first-time dad. Enlightened or at least emboldened by the arrival of daughter Luna, and for sure informed by the particular delirium that comes with knowing that you have to raise a child in whatever-the-fuck kind of world exists post-2016, Darkness and Light sees Legend assisted by Alabama Shakes producer Blake Howard in feeling out the edges of his sound and lyrical scope. From top to bottom it’s an incredible-sounding record, as obviously indebted to 70s soul as to Howard’s previous efforts,and at its best (‘Surefire’, the Brittany Howard-assisted title track) the songs are near flawless – there are occasional MOR moments and missteps (‘Love Me Now’ for the former, ‘Temporarily Painless’ the latter), but taken as a whole the record is comfortably his best yet. – MM
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