Childish Gambino: 3.15.20 review – a deep-dive made for self-isolation

The actor and musician’s long-delayed fourth album is a tour de force whose thirst for new sounds recalls 00s Kanye West

If last week now seems forever ago to most of us, a geological aeon has elapsed since Donald Glover – a then medium-famous US TV actor – was widely derided as a try-hard rap dilettante. His 2011 debut album as Childish Gambino, Camp, drew curiosity and disdain. Now, Glover’s fourth studio effort, named after the day it was first streamed with little warning via, feels like one of the year’s major musical events. It comes in two forms, one without track breaks, credited to Donald Glover, and one with, credited to Childish Gambino.

It is long delayed, probably because Glover was busy playing the young Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story and Simba in The Lion King; his father also died, and last year Glover made a short film, Guava Island, starring Rihanna. A song like Feels Like Summer – now renamed 42.26 – was a hit two years ago; Glover’s last UK tour 12 months ago found room for both the hard-hitting Algorhythm – a dance tune about how humans are outsourcing decision-making to AI – and Time, which blanches at the impending apocalypse alongside Ariana Grande. But this record was worth the wait and is worth your time, a comprehensive deep-dive made for the dedicated concentration of self-isolation.

Apart from Algorhythm and Time, every track is named after the time at which it appears on the album, and Glover packs in anger, despair and personal eureka moments, moving from an angelic falsetto to self-harmonising a cappella (39.28) to heavily Auto-Tuned soothsaying. At this album’s twisted heart is a sardonic country music nursery rhyme about selling drugs that sounds a little like MIA.

Listen to Childish Gambino’s new album in full.

There are meditations here on love and self-love, and hook-ups with girls while high on magic mushrooms. Like This Is America – the standalone track that was one of the cultural high-water marks of 2018 – or Atlanta – the groundbreaking TV series Glover created in 2016 – 3.15.20 is as layered as an onion. Keen to wow a mainstream audience, Glover and his collaborators continue the bravura fusion of soulfulness, funk and trap established by his two previous breakthrough albums, 2016’s soul-drenched Awaken, My Love! and its 2013 predecessor, Because the Internet.

Because of Glover’s background as an actor and show-runner, some of these songs have the feel of narrative fiction. The excellent 12.38 could be an episode of Atlanta, in which Earn – the central everyman character played by Glover – has an encounter with a girl who feeds him psilocybin (he is comically unsure what psilocybin is). Throughout, his phone vibrates with text messages from his girlfriend. The sexual tension is played for laughs, but a thrown-out line rails against overcrowded prisons.

As engaging as these songs are on multiple levels, 3.15.20 really excels when Glover experiments with form, texture and sensory overload. One sequence at the end of another Prince-ish track, the slow, straightforward love song 24.19, finds Glover running as though in fear, but reaching what sounds more like a sexual climax; a passage at the end of 35.31 is sung backwards.

Debuted at Coachella in 2019, the next song (then called Warlords and now called 32.22) is an aggressive tour de force; its appetite for tearing up sound rulebooks recalls 00s Kanye West. The track features whispered exhortations and, later, whoops, shrieks and synthetic jungle noises. It’s like something great left off the Black Panther soundtrack (Glover’s longtime collaborator, the film composer-turned-producer Ludwig Göransson, worked on the film). But it’s impossible to parse the meaning of the workaday farm animal noises at the end.

Watch the video for This Is America.

If Glover tackles the roles of lover and partner, elsewhere he plays both a son and a father. On 19.10, a powerful funk-pop outing that nods again to Prince, Glover recalls being warned about the iniquities of the world by his own father – the kind of thing Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing about with his 2015 article Letter to My Son. By the end of 47.48, another song about explaining the violence of black life to innocent children, Glover enlists Legend, his eldest son now aged three, to talk about who he loves.

“Do you love yourself?” asks Legend. Glover is taken aback for a beat. “I do love myself,” he answers, in his best dad voice. It’s a skewering moment, because Glover has talked (and written and sung) about his extreme discomfort in his own skin since the beginning of his musical career. More recently, however, in the wake of Atlanta’s success, he was capable of discussing his own greatness with a New Yorker profiler.

As a topic, self-love has had a long history in African American music. Often a little opaque to outsiders, at its root is the struggle to overcome the learned self-hatred of racism. 53.49 takes up the theme, but with joy. Glover is self-aware enough to note this song is a “Yeezy Boost”, the kind of elevation Kanye West has been aiming for with his Sunday Services (and his trainer line). The song is yet another letter, of sorts, to Glover’s sons. “I did what I wanted,” he beams, preaching hard-won self-acceptance and a message to remember to seize love where it is. “I said, I love me!” Glover exclaims, still a little taken aback. But it’s not just grandstanding.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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