Childish Gambino - Awaken, My Love!

There's no one quite as hot in the hip-hop world right now as Childish Gambino is. Mr. Donald Glover announced his third record Awaken, My Love! at the beginning of November, and now it's out and it is quite the surprise.

There's not much that could've pre-empted you for this record. It's not what you may have expected from Childish Gambino, but at the same time it still feels intrinsically like his own record. Awaken, My Love is more of a funk and soul record than it is hip-hop (Glover's host genre), so it is a departure. This was the direction that he looked to be traveling in, though. It's not Because The Internet, nor is it Camp. If anything, it's closer to his Kauai EP. What's best about the record, perhaps, is that it is its own entity and sound.

This record is a new chapter in the story of Donald Glover. This is true thematically and stylistically. Awaken, My Love! is an album about love, being served in many different forms. From an overarching view, this album is for Gambino's son. The title itself references a birth; that tense but joyous wait for your newborn child to open their eyes or to cry for the first time. Other song titles also reference "your mama" and 'Baby Boy,' further giving credence to this theme.

The theme of love and life occurs in each and every song separately, though. There's not really one specific topic that the album clings to, but each song has something to say. Lead single 'Me and Your Mama' opens the record, its spiraling Radiohead synths adding a modern touch to the old-fashioned, blues rock instrumental the song has. The lyrics tell the tale of how difficult love can be, and how those against it encumber those who have fallen victim to it. The first verse chants, "They wanna see us fallin' apart! / You know that I love you! / So let me into your heart," Glover begging his lover to stay with him and open up to him despite the world being against them.

The poppier, rawer 'California' follows up on love, Glover criticizing a girl who wants to life a free and fun life in California. She then gets in trouble and despite his initial distaste, the narrator too wants to go there to have a good time. The song has a distinct accent on it, the instrumental too sounding different from the rest. It's simply a fun song - it's not serious by any means, flowing with groove and oozing with sweetness. 'Terrified' follows up, immediately taking the tone back to a dark one as things start falling apart when the couple encounters several hardships.

Any fan of Childish Gambino will know that he is always making a statement. On Awaken, My Love!, when he's not singing about love, he's making a statement about life as a black man. Several songs on the record have this call-to-arms vibe, perhaps understated as a result of the infectious funk. 'Have Some Love' begins with a gospel choir soulfully chanting "Have a word for your brother / Have some time for one another / Really love one another / It's so hard to find," Glover's vocals coming in afterwards, sounding paranoid and distraught. The song's groovy bassline makes the song's vibe feel more significant than the words, shadowing the meaning in the best way possible. It takes two listens to absorb it. There are other songs that ring with more urgency. See 'Boogieman,' where the refrain barks "With a gun in your hand, I'm the boogieman / I'm gonna come and get you" as sung by a blues choir. The song's soulful guitar riffs ring with purpose, the vocals this time showing that they have significance amongst the layers of the song. 

It all ends with 'Stand Tall.' The sweet instrumental 'The Night Me and Your Mama Met' prefaced the track, sweet strummed guitar that ends each bar with a quick punch of sweet wah. 'Stand Tall' has two distinct parts to it. It begins quietly with bass and guitar, Childish Gambino coming in to sing about a lesson his father taught him when he was young. That lesson is told in the hook: "Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall / If you are strong you cannot fall / There is a voice inside us all / So smile when you can." The somber tone of the first half is then brought up to something more upbeat and celebratory, the same lyrics repeating but with more appreciation. It's a sweet sendoff to the record that brought love and hate together into one soulful experience.

Awaken, My Love! is a departure of sound, but a solidification of conviction. Childish Gambino is an artist in the truest form. This entire album is one big risk, but it pays off brilliantly in the end. It's not the hip-hop we're accustomed to from him, but its a dark, moody, and groovy soul and funk record that has emotional and political connotations. Just when you thought it may have been over for Donald Glover, he comes right back, and with flying colors.

Favorite Tracks: Me and Your Mama, The Night Me and Your Mama Met, California, Stand Tall

Least Favorite Track: Riot

Rating: 84 / 100


If yesterday's review of Little Mix's new album didn't prove that musical preconceptions can be false, DNCE certainly will. The dance rock group, probably more known as Joe Jonas's new musical project, is here with one of 2016's grooviest records yet with their self-titled DNCE.

DNCE is no Jonas Brothers rip off. It's like the lovechild of The 1975 and Two Door Cinema Club. It's laced with sugary guitar chords and a R&B flair, creating a textbook definition of funk rock. The album kicks off with the eponymous track 'DNCE,' beginning with a sweet harmonies as the group spells out the band's name. It carries through with some bright, punchy synths and optimistic brass above the sweet instrumental. Jonas' vocals are full of groove in a very smooth way. 'Body Moves' follows up with a crunchy bassline and some sweet melodies backing it. The choruses burst with funky flair, the bridge bursting with a crunchy guitar riff that builds up with brass support to lead it into the sparkly break.

A lot of this album feels like a big party. 'Cake By The Ocean' is one song that really finds itself in that setting. The dancey bassline repeating throughout the record, the choruses exploding with sparkling synth chords and great melodies. The guitar work is fantastic, while understated, especially in the second verse. It rings so groovily and sugary, it feels likes its dancing completely separately from the track. 'Doctor You' follows up in much the same way, Jonas' vocals smoothly and sensually resonating above the crunchy riff. The melodies are the ear candy of the song, very bombastic and proud. The song 'Naked' later on in the record also features the bombastic vibe. some falsetto vocals from JinJoo Lee giving the song a fresh palette.

There are a lot of great songs on this record, but several of them are just that - good songs building off the same vibes. No track is a carbon copy of the other, but often times the songs cling to a specific vibe. 'Be Mean' has the same proud and bright vibes of 'Naked,' albeit a bit masochistic, but doesn't try to move on from that. Laidback tracks like 'Almost' ring sweetly in the otherwise upfront tracklist, but 'Truthfully' repeats this formula, with less build to a climax and with more of a pop vibe. The easygoing, lazy 'Good Day' has that laidback structure that really builds the entire album, except that it doesn't use other elements to make it seem otherwise.

DNCE is a surprising threat to pop and funk music. This unexpected group abandons preconceptions and has an infectious sound that ranks amongst the top contenders of the genre. DNCE is a great debut - a great album to jam out to in any scenario. There's promise in this band.

Favorite Tracks: Cake By The Ocean, Doctor You, Almost

Least Favorite Track: Zoom

Rating: 80 / 100

Bruno Mars - 24K Magic

The king of funk is back, but perhaps not with flying colors. Bruno Mars is here with his long-awaited comeback to 2012's Unorthodox Jukebox with his third record 24K Magic.

Bruno Mars is known for his infectious groove and bombastic style, and 24K Magic is much the same. Lead single '24K Magic' opens the record up, and our opinions since our review of the track in October remain largely unchanged. The upfront vibes and 90s instrumental really sells his funky composure. It's a groovy song and has a very original sound to it, and all signs pointed to a successful record.

Sadly, 24K Magic is somewhat of a letdown. Bruno Mars' confidence is taken to an almost obnoxious level, exuding cockiness rather than groove. Many songs are ruined by this; 'Perm' has some great vocals but the lyrical content is a true facepalm moment. 'Chunky' is much the same -great sonically, but the lyrics are just a bit too left-field, while the sentiment may not be the worst. The album ends on a far too bombastic note, as well - 'Too Good To Say Goodbye' has an 80s formula, but Mars refuses to stop belting by the end of the song, where it could really use a nice mix of falsetto in there. The song builds nicely, and while a bit cliché, it misses that punch and dynamic that could've made it a strong ending.

The album does have quite a bit of soul to its credit, though. 'That's What I Like' brings in some sensual vibes paired with his soulful timbre. 'Versace On The Floor' follows through with some pure soul vibes, instrumental et al. It screams 80s, complete with a synth solo. It's a sweeter track, falling in line with 'Calling All My Lovelies,' but does everything better. 'Calling' is much too slow and the odd Halle Berry sample is a bit off-putting. The strongest track on the record is 'Straight Up and Down,' which combines Mars' swagger and soul flawlessly and with purpose. The vocals are great while still maintaining a sweet mood, not being overly confronting and upfront like other tracks. This is the middle-ground this album should've sought out.

Bruno Mars' return to music is a bit too much. Many tracks are solid, but very few are standout tracks. 24K Magic a jumbled blend of swagger and soul and never holds on to the compromise between the two. Bruno Mars is back, though, and hopefully that means it won't be too long a wait until he progresses onto the next one.

Favorite Track: Straight Up and Down

Least Favorite Tracks: Calling All My Lovelies, Perm

Rating: 52 / 100

Two Door Cinema Club - Gameshow

Some bands love to bring the groove forward. One of the most effective bands who strive for that is Two Door Cinema Club, here in 2016 with their followup to 2012's sophomore Beacons, entitled Gameshow.

The band hit it big right from the start, the single 'What You Know' from their debut record Tourist History becoming a pop hit. The Irish trio have since then stripped back some of their energetic drive, ushering them into a more refined, groovy sound that forms the foundations of Gameshow.

The groove kicks off immediately with 'Are We Ready? (Wreck)' with the infectious guitars and bass getting you moving right on the first track. Even the vocals have a certain swagger to them that makes you want to get up and move around. Big drama fills the chorus to give it some tension, too. Similar vibes carry to title track 'Gameshow', its reckless abode pairing with a big, crazy attack gives it a sweet drive. 'Lavender' follows up with a similar thickness. The lovely melodies are paired with a subtle vocoder that whispers behind Alex Trimble's infectious voice. The guitar and synth punches in the chorus really give it an extra sense of optimism and energy.

Electronics play an important role on this record. Synths make their way into nearly every song, whether its background or lead. Often times, they contain some strong nostalgia with them, such as in 'Fever', as the dreamy synths wash over bluesy guitar before taking on an 80s soundscape, complete with strings et al. Closure track 'Je Viens De Là' also has a nostalgic atmosphere, a mix of disco and 80s flair blending to one funky conclusion. The choruses are generally simplistic before elements build into dancey synths and guitar chords. The aesthetic of the album is accurately portrayed through the synths of 'Ordinary', paired with a glitchy aspect that makes it fresh. The fat bass synth punches in 'Bad Decisions' and 'Surgery' also add to that vibe, the drive of 'Good Morning' and its great lyrics doing much the same.

An issue that seems to repeat throughout the record is that the band doesn't really know what to prioritize and what to put in the background. There are tracks like 'Surgery' that blend indie rock and 80s nostalgia seamlessly, complete down to the brim with a chill solo that satisfies both genres. They seem to want to be The 1975 too much on this record, but they haven't gotten that balance of funk and indie appeal. An example is 'Invincible' - the pizzaz is all in the background, leaving the more underwhelming portions starkly in the front of all the action. The guitar is good but it's almost lost amongst the synths.

Two Door Cinema Club are still on the road of solidifying this sound of theirs. It's getting there, but Gameshow is that final crossroad. You can hear the gradual understanding of their own sound and ideas in the record, and it's bound to show off in the next record. Gameshow stands on its own as a good album, nonetheless - it just lacks that cohesion that could've bumped it up one step further. We'll be drowning in funk for days with this one, though, so there's no need to rush.

Favorite Tracks: Lavender, Gameshow, Surgery

Least Favorite Track: Invincible

Rating: 78 / 100