The true pleasure in watching Donald Glover evolve as an actor, musician, and cultural critic is anticipating his disruption of expectations. In each manifestation, and with each cultural contribution, Glover deliberately defies intention and probability. As Childish Gambino, the recent release 3.15.20 is an astute cultural examination of the current political and social situation while also avowing love and humanity. The rollout of 3.15.20 was a little clunky, first appearing on donaldgloverpresents.com then disappearing only to have a few tracks stream continuously. Regardless of whether this was a tactic to score more attention, the result is perfectly timed. As COVID-19 forces individuals into accepting the digital connection and subsequent social disconnect, society is ensconced in the digital realm more than ever. Glover wasn’t exactly predicting social distancing, but 3.15.20 is prophetic in its criticism of the exceedingly blurred overlap between humanity and the digital. A disconnect Glover defines as exasperated by the current health crisis and the underlying oppressive social norms.
“Algorhythm” presents 3.15.20‘s thesis. The track warns of the erosion of individuality and humanity caused by technology’s power. Glover specifically takes issue with Big-Tech’s algorithms for tracing and capturing users’ digital fingerprints. According to the artist, we, as a society, are compliant. The addiction to technology puts humanity under erasure and embraces the “Supercomputer status, walkin’ along streets / Everyone is an addict, stumbling concrete / What was the motivation? Constant communication.” Glover’s self-awareness is on point: he realizes technology enables the unfurling of his creativity and impact on popular culture.
Consider the moniker Childish Gambino, derived from the automated online Wu-Tang Clan name generator. Rather than calling himself out, he robotized his voice, suggesting he, as Childish Gambino, is already fully situated within the cyborgian. But it’s not too late as made evident by the sample of the 1990s hit “Hey Mr. D.J.” by Zhane. Even as a fragment, the sample connects with his past, reaffirming humankind, and pulling his soul back from the digital vortex. Glover is quick to address the universality of the tech/human spectacle. “Time”, featuring Ariana Grande, contends the issue is global as “seven billion people trying to free themselves”.
In 3.15.20, and manifested in other projects, Glover centralizes the space where popular culture is a tool to build awareness and feed distraction. On first listen, “12.38” (featuring 21 Savage, Ink, and Kadhja Bonet) sounds like a classic funk song illustrating a lusty relationship. Here Glover’s subtlety is masterful. With references to bell hooks, N.K. Jemison, and mass incarceration, the track is politically charged. Likewise, the country music inflections purposely misrepresent “35.31”. The faux-levity hides the focus on drug dealing and the associated violence. Glover forces the listener to realize the track’s purpose when he drops the instrumentation to highlight the lyrics “Quarter brick, half a brick, whole brick.” These tracks are catchy and danceable — a construct knowingly diverting their significant social commentary.
Glover revisits this technique in “Feels Like Summer“. An indelible radio-hit, the title and instrumentation lull the listener into falsely assuming it will be mellow. It isn’t: it’s about climate change and its perilous impact. Glover draws the listener towards “Running out of water / Air that kill the bees that we depend upon / Birds were made for singing / Waking up to no sound.” He quickly, and arguably too expeditiously, identifies capitalism as the root of oppression. Glover again points out this is not an America only problem; these are issues affecting the entire world, made visible by the current pandemic.
In a falsetto echoing Marvin Gaye in “What’s Going On”, Glover hopes “that this world will change”, an imploration voiced by many. Glover’s honeyed vocals are short-lived. In “32.22” he mumbles the vocals to such an extent they are indecipherable. Instead, the raucous music and spiraling tempo shifts deliver the urgency. The bass echoes drums of war, a clear reflection of the current hawkish political climate.
Despite the grim reality, Glover holds space for love and sweetness. “24.19” is a Prince-inspired love song evoking a tenderness absent from the rest of the album. “47.48” ends with a dialogue between Glover and his son ruminating on loving themselves. The closer “53.59” ultimately finds Glover reflecting on his upbringing in Atlanta and the inspiration derived from his father’s life and death. He arrives at the heartening conclusion that “there is love in every moment”.
3.15.20 captures the tumultuous contemporary moment. As society contends with sickness, anger, and fear, Glover remedies the malignancy while fueling the anguish. 3.15.20 signals an important shift for Childish Gambino and secures the album’s spot as one of the best of the year.