Friday 3 April 2020

Review of '3:15:20' by Childish Gambino

Childish Gambino loves to surprise the hell out of his fans.

His last record, Awaken My Love, was an authentically old-skool funk record with a vocal range to rival Prince (honestly, where was he hiding those vocals?). Following this, the viral video of his last politically-charged single ‘This Is America’ pretty much bewildered everyone, setting itself up as a happy pop tune only to have Donald shooting someone in the head accompanied by a bulldozing of murky bass. 

This latest album if full of surprises. Having already heard experimental R&B number ‘Time’ before listening to the record, I thought I had an idea of what to expect, but no – this album is unpredictable from start to finish. Every track draws influence from a different genre. There are tracks like ‘Algorythm’ that blend industrial music and funk. There are wild tracks like ‘32.22’, which sounds like a Yeezus track with Travis Scott on vocals. And then there’s ’39.28’, which could pass for a Queen song.  On top of this, there are surprise uncredited guests like 21 Savage and unexpected beat change-ups.

The album deliberately offers no hints of its contents. Most of the tracks don’t have titles, just timestamps. The album title is literally just the release date and there’s no album cover (The Beatles would like a word). On the surface, there is no theme to this album.

And I don’t think the album is meant to have a theme. Unlike previous Childish Gambino records that all had complex narratives, 3:15:20 has no lyrical theme to tie all the tracks together. That isn’t to say that this album is a spontaneous mess (although some listeners may see it that way) – the production has a distorted quality throughout that gives the tracks a uniform sound, even if they’re delving into various genres.   

It also helps that the tracks are all very infectious and groovy, even if they are utterly bonkers. His sporadic but catchy approach to soul sounds a lot like Tyler, The Creator’s Igor, but with a singer that can actually sing (sorry, Tyler). Perhaps his most impressive vocal performance is on ‘12:38’, in which he alternates between funky rap-singing and soulful falsettos. I also love his angry-Anderson-Paak-style singing on closer ’53.49’. You almost forget that Donald Glover started his musical career as a rapper (although there is still rapping on this album).

On my first listen, there were a few WTF moments that I wasn’t sure about ('32.22’ is definitely one of those moments) but I’ve since warmed to them as playful experiments. In fact, this is one of the most playful albums I’ve heard in a while. The fact there is no attempt to give it all meaning stops it from being pretentious and there's enough catchiness and rhythm to prevent it from being masturbatory nonsense. April might be a little too early to call it, but this is definitely a contender for AOTY.