Childish Gambino: 3.15.20 review – at the peak of the zeitgeist

The actor, comedian and musician Donald Glover has made the first truly outstanding album of the decade, offsetting cultural examinations with moments of sweet levity

In hindsight, music has always been Donald Glover’s true calling. Before the sitcoms, the Star Wars movie, the Saturday Night Live hosting gigs, and the well-worn gifs of the performer walking horrified into a burning room with a stack of pizza boxes, you could find him on YouTube as a member of Derrick Comedy. The group’s greatest sketch, B-Boy Stance, saw Glover play an ageing hip-hop pioneer who had his arms surgically attached to his back, ensuring he was forever pulling the iconic pose – it riffs on the distance between the New York acolytes who witnessed the birth of hip-hop and those who came to the music after it was commodified. Glover’s understanding of American culture shines with diamond clarity; Atlanta, his comedy-drama that goes deep into the city’s rap scene, is the evolution of those ideas.

Glover’s early forays into rap were corny and forgettable. The Childish Gambino project felt like the side hustle of a talented kid eager to test every limit of his creativity – that the moniker was taken from an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator seemed to reflect how low it fell on his list of priorities. In 2016, the funk record Awaken, My Love! was an artistic breakthrough. Then came 2017’s vicious This Is America and a video that encapsulates the racial prejudice, police brutality and vicious gun lust freezing the soul of the self-proclaimed greatest country in the world. The clip became a pop cultural juggernaut, anointing Glover as spokesman for the Black Lives Matter generation.

3.15.20 is the glorious payoff of this musical evolution. Melding elements of industrial hip-hop, hard-edged funk and pulsing electronica, with occasional experimental breakdowns a la Pink Floyd, it is an ambitious album that can turn from hedonism to hope on a dime. And with its genre-hopping ethos, bold orchestral choices and pleasing tunefulness, it is the first truly boundary-pushing record of the 2020s, cementing its creator as a daring virtuoso. (The roll out of the record wasn’t quite as well executed: songs temporarily began streaming on a continuous loop last Sunday via – and are once again – leaving fans to ponder whether it was a leak or part of an elaborate release strategy.)

Donald Glover Presents: 3.15.20 – stream

No song is quite as blunt as the societal sledgehammer that was This Is America because they don’t have to be – Glover’s sharp pen and outlandish concepts see him smartly examine topics such as freedom in the digital age, the nature of reality and the malignancy in the soul of his home nation.

Take Algorhythm, which warns of the erosion of personal liberties as the algorithms that serve our information alter our minds. The corrosive psychological effect of phones has become catnip for songwriters in recent years but Glover brings his own perspective, using vocal effects to slide into the role of artificial intelligence while dropping biblical references. Elsewhere, he buries his voice so deep in effects at moments that it is near-impossible to make out his words – see 32.22, a bruising rap song that shares DNA with Kanye West’s Black Skinhead. The effect alludes to the disappearance of his soul into a digital vortex, inviting listeners to determine what is and is not real.

The most direct probing comes on the Ariana Grande-assisted Time, as Glover – sounding half flower child, half crystal gazer – questions whether the world is “exactly what it seems”. With a melody reminiscent of forgotten single Cry, there’s even a touch of Michael Jackson to the sweeping anthem. It’s not difficult to picture MJ, arms stretched out in a Christ-like stance, singing lines such as: “Seven billion people trying to free themselves / Said a billion prayers trying to save myself.” Not that you ever would have caught Jackson over these psych-tinted guitar strums and eccentric, retro-futuristic drum machines.

The gentle funk of 47.48 evokes memories of Stevie Wonder as Glover explores the devastating effect violence has on childhood innocence. There are moments of levity, though. On the Prince-esque lover-man jam 24.19, the meaning of a relationship is captured through minutiae as Glover smiles at his sweetheart’s appreciation of fairytales, the way they wear their hair and the chicken dinners the couple once shared. More passion comes on 12.38, throwback funk featuring horny one-liners such as “Hit the uchi-chuchi ti’ll it’s slanted”; the hazy pop of Feels Like Summer will line up well on barbecue playlists.

These are lighter moments in a grander work that instantly feels part of the zeitgeist. It’s especially appropriate, then, that 3.15.20 has dropped into the feeds of people social distancing. The disruption caused by the coronavirus forces us to question how strong the foundations of civilisation really are. Glover never could have seen the pandemic coming when he was recording the album, yet at a time when much of what we thought was strong is weak – what we thought was eternal is potentially fleeting – 3.15.20 captures the insecurity of lived reality and the humanity that truly defines our existence.


Dean Van Nguyen

The GuardianTramp

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