American rapper and singer Childish Gambino. Photograph from @donaldglover on Twitter
Culture Music

Big statements, small impact: Childish Gambino gets lofty with ‘3.15.20’

Despite a rich history of artistic experimentation, Childish Gambino leans on the same strengths and commits the same sins in his new full-length
| Mar 28 2020

The first time I heard the bus monologue on “That Power” off Childish Gambino’s Camp album, I was thrown. I was seventeen and impressionable, at an age where any sweeping hypothesis on the human condition—as long as it was mined from young love and the heat of squandered summers—could hit me with the full force of a vehicular collision. 

You can see why I’d gobble up a switch-up from a rap to a whole-ass soliloquy. “I wish I could say this was a story about how I got on the bus a boy and got off a man more cynical, hardened, and mature and shit,” Gambino pontificates, with the confidence of a John Green protagonist. “But that's not true. The truth is I got on the bus a boy. And I never got off the bus. I still haven't.” 

More than his punchlines and flow, it was Gambino’s knack for soapbox histrionics that kept me a fan.

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Donald Glover has always been an artist of Big Statements. Like, there he goes, making Big Statements, diagnosing the zeitgeist the way an NYU graduate of Dramatic Writing would. Let’s look at the evidence, your honor: releasing a whole damn companion screenplay to Because the Internet; that freestyle he did on Sway in the Morning where he goes off meter to ramble before jumping back into the pocket with ease; everything about This Is America. (That’s not even counting his acting career, or his comedy juvenilia.)

Safe to say, what strings together all of Childish Gambino’s work up to this point is a sense of self-seriousness. Sometimes broody, sometimes cynical, but always reaching for the lofty. Same goes for his latest full-length 3.15.20, named after the date of its surprise drop. Consider the second song on the track list “Algorhythm,” a darkly mixed banger of a track whose distorted flow and bright chorus speak to the dehumanizing qualities of living with and on the internet. “Algorhythm” is such a ham-handed portmanteau that I have no choice but to love it and its Blade Runner-esque conceits, even though Janelle Monae unpacked these sci-fi themes with more finesse on Dirty Computer.

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It’s with a heavy heart though that I proclaim “Algorhythm” to be the strongest track in the album, despite Ariana Grande’s melodic assists on “Time” and a solid guest verse by 21 Savage on “12.38.” Hooks are abundant on this album, but are marred by fuzzy production, drums that are too loud, and songs that are just way longer than they have to be. One thing you can do with lengthy runtimes is build a mood or atmosphere, but a song like “24.19,” which runs for 8 minutes, doesn’t do that at all. Kind of reminds me of how Because the Internet’s little interludes felt less like world-builders and more like fillers.

These artistic missteps prevent me from fully appreciating the best things about 3.15.20, which are Gambino’s lyricism and sense of melody. His falsetto just doesn’t sound as buttery when the mix leans on industrial or darkwave.

On a related note, it’s a little annoying that most of the tracks on this album are just named after their timestamps. So is 3.15.20 minimalist form-wise, but conceptually maximalist? Is mystique the point? I don’t think you get to play the mystique card if you give a song called “Algorhythm” your phattest hook.

I think what Childish Gambino tried to do with 3.15.20 is cold-fuse the soft tropical house stylings of Kauai and the spooky soul of Awaken, My Love!, and then frame that synthesis with a more developed recapitulation of Because the Internet’s digital angst. I get that. But it’s clear that Childish Gambino still hasn’t quite figured out how to synthesize all the disparate, wide-reaching elements of his artistry. Slipshod production and underbaked thematic explorations make 3.15.20 an album of Big Statements to be sure, but with Small Impact. I’m always going to be a fan of Childish Gambino’s work and all its perfectly imperfect pretensions. But maybe it’s about time my guy get off the bus.

 

You can listen to ‘3.15.20’ on Spotify