The multi-talented mogul unceremoniously drops his finest musical statement to date.
Originally published on 3/30/20.
Donald Glover is a man of many, many talents. Over the past decade, he has built up an almost absurdly successful repertoire in just about every major entertainment category. Acting, singing, rapping, dancing, producing, writing, directing, stand-up comedy, DJing – you name it, he can probably do it with flying colors. (It helps that he created, wrote, and starred in one of the 21st century’s best TV shows, Atlanta.) Back in 2011, Glover released his first album Camp under the stage name Childish Gambino followed by the significantly better Because the Internet in 2013, both albums showcasing an ambitious but also (mostly) self-aware style of rap. It didn’t take long for Glover to gain a massive following as a rapper with these two projects. However, Glover gave his sound a complete overhaul with 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!” (yes, the album title has quotes), earning him even further critical and commercial success, as well as a nomination for Album of the Year at the Grammys. Filled with psychedelic funk and R&B instrumentation and creative musical concepts, “Awaken, My Love!” proved just what Glover was capable of when it came to music. But with 3.15.20, Glover has released his best album yet.
First, some backstory on 3.15.20, as it provides even more intrigue to the album. The title of 3.15.20 refers to the date on which the project was technically released. On said day, Glover’s manager Fam Rothstein shared a link to a website called donaldgloverpresents.com, which led to an ongoing loop of new music being streamed on the site. But after twelve hours, the stream disappeared, leaving fans waiting for an official release of whatever was being played – Rothstein’s Twitter account vanished, as well. Eventually a countdown timer indicating a release date of March 22nd was all that remained on the site, and it wasn’t until the early hours of that very day that 3.15.20 hit streaming services. The album has come in two versions: one in the form of a continuous music file that contains the entire record, and one that is separated into tracks (needless to say, this review will specifically concern the version with tracks). Interestingly enough, most of the twelve tracks on the separated version are named after their timestamps on the full album (“0.00,” “24.19,” “53.49,” etc.), with only two tracks being titled officially (“Algorhythm” and “Time”). And just to add to the mystery of 3.15.20, the separated version has been released under the name Childish Gambino with a blank white cover, while the one-track version is billed under Donald Glover Presents, those words showing up faintly on the same plain white backdrop.
With 3.15.20, Glover takes cues from his previous releases as Childish Gambino – especially his last two – and finds a way to fuse them while adding musical elements he’s never touched on before. Where “Awaken, My Love!” seldom strayed from the foundations of funk, soul, and R&B (though it more than pushed the boundaries of all those genres), 3.15.20 fundamentally focuses on fusing R&B and pop in its own strange way while adding other influences to the mix. Whether Glover is channeling George Michael (“Time”), the Grateful Dead (“47.48”), Yeezus-era Kanye West (“32.22”), or even Bill Wurtz (“39.28”), this record is consistently catchy and inventive and rarely even the least bit boring. I mean, this is an album where rapper 21 Savage’s normally bland monotone is made to work extremely well on a smooth, yet quirky R&B instrumental (“12.38”). Donald Glover is definitely doing something right here.
As usual, Glover acts as executive producer for the album, but there’s quite a bit more collaboration here on the production front than on his past releases. DJ Dahi, one of the best producers in hip-hop right now, contributes to the vast majority of the tracks on 3.15.20. Ludwig Göransson, Swedish composer and longtime collaborator of Glover, also leaves his mark on several of the record’s songs. Even influential British pop musician Jai Paul pops his head in to help with the production on the song “Time.” Perhaps the most notable instrumental on the album comes on the song “Algorhythm,” which sounds like a mixture of industrial and trip-hop; this turns out to be a perfect backdrop for Glover’s penchant for vocal acrobatics and earworm melodies.
Almost the whole album plays like a continuous piece of music (which is probably why Glover released a one-file version), allowing even casual background listening to be an experience in and of itself. At the end of many of these tracks, there are passages that transition into the following song, some of which are much more musical than others. Even the experimental, less melodic passages manage to be oddly fitting transitions, though, as jarring as they can sometimes be.
Lyrically, the album covers a lot of bases; the subject matter ranges from racism and the black experience (“19.10”), to past experiences with gang violence (“35.31”), to grieving the loss of a significant other (“39.48”), to just dancing and having fun (“Algorhythm”). All of these subjects come together with surprising harmoniousness; weirdly enough, the disjointedness of these themes is what makes this work, as it gives the impression that we are being given access to various parts of Glover’s mind and life. It’s sort of like Kanye’s The Life of Pablo if it were a little more of a cohesive effort.
The second half of the album does have some bumps on the road, though, and this is where nearly every problem with the album lies. The track “32.22,” while a strange, interesting thrill of a song, sticks out like a sore thumb in the tracklist, and it doesn’t help that it’s sandwiched directly between two of the poppiest, happiest-sounding songs on the entire record. Additionally, the track takes so many elements directly from Yeezus that it risks sounding like a rip-off. The next track, “35.31,” fares only slightly better; though the contrast between the dark verses and the giddy sound of the song is appreciated, I just wish it were shorter, or at least less lyrically repetitive. The song “42.26” (which is actually Glover’s 2018 single “Feels Like Summer”), albeit a nice song that fits quite snugly into the rest of 3.15.20, has perhaps the least interesting musical arrangement on the record; it doesn’t go anywhere in particular, and ends up going by in something of a blur. I also wish the intro, “0.00,” was a better table-setter for the project; it’s more of a minimal, underwhelming start to an album that immediately kicks into gear with the next track.
Despite these flaws, it must be mentioned that 3.15.20 absolutely sticks the landing with closing track “53.49.” Over a funky and soulful instrumental, Glover showcases his vocal range with loud, animated rap verses that transition very nicely into a beautifully sung chorus. There are points where he reaches up into his high register, sounding distinctly like Prince and causing instant stank-face in the listener (this is only increased with the gospel choir harmonies that come in a little over halfway through). The song is a high-energy musical venture that is about as perfect a closer to the album as one could ask for.
It may not be perfect, but 3.15.20 is nonetheless a fantastic record that was absolutely worth the more than three-year wait, and serves as Glover’s most wholly impressive musical statement to date. Despite the flaws to be found on a few tracks and the somewhat disjointed nature of the project, it all manages to come together as a whole quite effectively. This is Glover’s best body of work yet under the moniker Childish Gambino, which is a relief considering he has been touting this as his last project under that name. 3.15.20 is an endlessly replayable well of musical creativity that is sure to make some year-end lists come December – including mine.
Listen to 3.15.20 on Apple Music or Spotify below.