Album Review: Childish Gambino's '3.15.20' Says a Lot and Nothing at All

Remember when Childish Gambino dropped “This Is America?” The controversial trap song became his first #1 single and won 4 Grammys, but there was no sign of an album to follow. Gambino’s last album was the sublime “Awaken, My Love!”; the album featured the Grammy-winning modern classic, “Redbone,” and was his most successful project to date. Ever since that album, along with “This Is America,” Gambino dropped new songs here and there (“Summertime Magic” and “Feels Like Summer”) and went on a massive world tour. Unfortunately, for fans of Childish Gambino, the renaissance man seemed to be more concerned with his career as Donald Glover: The Actor. In addition to prepping the third season of his Emmy-winning FX series, Atlanta, Glover starred in Solo: A Star Wars Story, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the 2019 live action remake of Disney’s The Lion King. For what it’s worth, fans did get some new music by way of the The Lion King‘s updated soundtrack and Beyoncé‘s The Lion King: The Gift, a compilation album inspired by the film. Glover even merged his passions for music and film with 2019’s Guava Island, a middling music film starring Rihanna, Letitia Wright, and Glover himself. All this is to say that it was certainly a surprise when donaldgloverpresents.com appeared out of thin air last week. The mysterious website featured four different album covers and Childish Gambino’s fourth studio album as one continuous stream. Fast forward to Sunday, March 22 at 3 A.M. EST… 3.15.20, the official title for the album, was released as a standard track-by-track album on all digital platforms. Note: The official tracklist titles all tracks with the corresponding timestamp on the continuous stream (with the exception of “Algorhythm” and “Time”), but the website’s source code reveals conventional titles for each track. All featured vocalists are currently uncredited.

3.15.20 attempts to translate the messiness of today’s world and society through a series of tracks that meander through different genres and defy traditional expectations of song structure and melody. This album sees Bino at the peak of his musical powers; it’s a glorious and messy culmination of his musical evolution. Unfortunately, the album often gets to wrapped up in performing Glover’s artistic vision as opposed to simply being “artistic.” That is to say, the aesthetics of vocal distortion and subpar mixing and mastering take away from the overall listening experience.

Most of Gambino’s pre-3.15.20 music set the thematic and musical foundation for the majority of the album. The soul and funk that drove the Grammy-nominated “Feels Like Summer” and “Summertime Magic” are the base for nearly every track on the album. Many of the album’s tracks chop, screw, blend, and completely transform those structural elements of soul and funk. “Algorhythm,” the album’s first proper track, turns a soulful bass line into a heavier dance track in the vein of Daft Punk‘s pre-Random Access Memories work and Kanye West‘s 808s & Heartbreak. He balances growling animalistic verses with a smooth hook. In addition, there’s “24.19 (Sweet Thing),” an 8-minute odyssey of a track that is heavily steeped in gospel and funk for the first half of the song. Bino’s vocal delivery is reminiscent of James Brown in the way that he loosely yells lyrics into the void as opposed to the pristine vocal delivery on “Awaken My, Love!” Gambino’s primary pre-3.15.20 track, “This Is America” was also an excellent precursor for the sound of the album. “This Is America,” had a slightly unconventional song structure, but it was the jarring juxtaposition of industrial trap verses with a bright folk-influenced hook that really made the song interesting. 3.15.20 takes the concept a step further by expanding that musical tension across multiple tracks. “32.22 (Warlords)” and “35.31 (Little Foot),” which sit next to each other on the official tracklist, are as if the two primary musical influences on “This Is America” grew into their own separate tracks. “32.22” is an aggressive and militaristic fusion of trap and funk over which Gambino’s mumbles nearly incomprehensible phrases. There are also elements of progressive rock and punk (which also appear in the album’s closer, “53.49 (Under The Sun)”) that up the intensity of the track. “35.31,” on the other hand, is a country/folk-inspired tune (autobiographical?) about a young man reminiscing about trapping as a child.

Donald Glover Presents

Unsurprisingly, two of the main bright spots on the album are the tracks that feature other artists. “Time,” which features two verses from Ariana Grande, is likely Bino’s strongest bet at a radio hit from 3.15.20. Ariana sounds beautiful on the track, as does Bino, and the dry acoustic guitar offers a welcome contrast to their slightly digitally distorted vocals. On “12.38 (Vibrate),” 21 Savage offers an excellent verse while Bino delivers a startlingly lengthy rap verse while using a stream-of-consciousness flow. Lyrically, the track offers some context to the deep love that he sings of on “24.19,” it’s a truly great track.

As aforementioned, “This Is America” offered some thematic guidance for the songs on 3.15.20. This is most strongly felt on “19.10 (Beautiful).” Over a poppy melody, Gambino sings of the beauty of blackness and how it is has been co-opted and commodified over time. It’s all a bit ironic, because that’s exactly what “This Is America” did. Regardless of how many Grammys that song won, it was simply a vapid display of musical activism. The music video, more so than the actual song, took collective black trauma, sensationalized it, and put it on a pedestal for the white liberal gaze. So, on “19.10” it is unclear if Gambino is singing from a place of reckoning with his own participation in the commodification of blackness for mass consumption (namely “This Is America” and arguably Atlanta), or if he’s trying to condemn it without taking responsibility for his role in it. This conflict is indicative of a larger problem with 3.15.20 — the album tends to buckle under the weight of Gambino’s need to be an “artist.” He tries to play with the concept and the construct of time by using timestamps as titles and initially releasing the album as one continuous stream. In actuality, even if listened to as one long stream, the album indisputably sounds like twelve distinct tracks. The transitions simply aren’t smooth enough to uphold this play on the concept of time. Furthermore, Bino tries to give the record an “unfinished” and “rough” feel through the mixing and mastering, but all he really achieves is an overall sound that is abrasive to the ears and it all feels quite lazy, not authentic. All of these things could have been excused, had 3.15.20 been some sort of groundbreaking work of art. Lyrically, the album is not particularly strong and Bino’s vocals are nothing to write home about. The strongest element of 3.15.20. is the way he blends genres like on the Queen-inspired ballad “39.28 (Why Go To The Party).” If only he sharpened his focus on exploring those fusions further instead of forcing his artistic pretentiousness on every part of the album experience.

Key Tracks: “Time”; “12.38 (Vibrate)”; “39.28 (Why Go To The Party)”; “24.19 (Sweet Thing)”

Score: 71

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