By Kaizad Irani ’22, Features Editor
Childish Gambino’s (aka Donald Glover’s) surprise album “3.15.20” is his newest full-length production since his 2016 album, “Awaken, My Love!” Following his epic 2018 releases of “This is America,” “Summertime Magic,” and “Feels Like Summer,” I was excited to delve into his new work. The 12-track LP features a blank white album cover with the majority of its songs titled by their timestamp on the album, an artistic decision intended for continuous listening, allowing for multiple readings of Gambino’s lyrics and production. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the album is perfect for isolated listening and self-reflection, as Gambino embraces uncertainty throughout the tracks and questions life as we know it. However, several of “3.15.20”’s weak points stem from questionable production techniques and instances of uncompelling, overly confusing lyrical thoughts.
The ambiguity behind the album dates back to its initial release. Gambino’s fourth studio album debuted as a continuous loop on donaldgloverpresents.com on March 15th 2020. However, it was removed from the website just hours after and re-appeared on all streaming services a week later. Following the album’s release, the website uploaded a handwritten note from Gambino, prefacing some thoughts about the motivation for the album and hinting at new music in the future, labeling this project as his “first book.”
Gambino recognizes and includes inspiration from a variety of past and present musical artists in his tone and voice. His abilities to incorporate his own vision with these borrowed sounds represent some of the highest and lowest points on the album. In “24.19,” dubbed, by some fans, a second part to his 2016 Grammy nominated track “Redbone,” Gambino expresses his gratitude and affection for his “sweet thing” in a funky and soulful ballad. The chorus resembles a Frank Ocean sound, providing for one of the strongest and more moving tracks on the record. It does seem rather drawn out (a common theme in the album), however, with an unnecessary length of nearly eight minutes. Gambino uses a cappella and a simple piano melody in “39.28,” resembling Queen’s rock opera ballad “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The lyrics are subtle and deep, possibly symbolizing Gambino’s grief for his late father: “Grief is a standing ocean, I never swam unless you did / So I don’t know why I’m here without you / I miss you.” Yet, this interlude that comes before “42.26,” a re-release of “Feel Like Summer,” does suffer from a shotty autotuned production, hindering Gambino’s moving lyrics.
And there’s “32.22.” Marking the second half of the album, the song is odd, confusing, and one of Gambino’s most bizarre pieces. Simply put, there is a lot to dissect on this tumultuous track. It is the only song on the album with a title that incorrectly states its start time, with Gambino attempting and failing to transform his autotuned voice into one sounding like Travis Scott or Kanye West. The verses sound like incoherent mumbling about some sort of a digital fire that is mixed with heavy digital effects and lots of panting and grunt noises. Produced by Gambino’s long time collaborator Ludwig Göransson, the song sounds like a lost track off the Black Panther soundtrack (which coincidentally, Göransson composed) with its heavy use of percussion. The song ends with farm noises and other random sounds, a fitting end to the chaotic three minutes of electronic madness. It’s a frightening track with feelings of aggression and anger, yet its hard-to-interpret lyrics and highly experimental production may dissuade listeners from further listens.
While the album praises itself for being decentralized and disorientated, I found myself enjoying the first half of the album’s songs much more than the latter. The second track, “Algorhythm,” is a futuristic dance song about the rise of technology and includes a smooth transition from a dark, robotic voice into a soulful and catchy chorus. It’s followed by “Time,” a similar sounding experimental piece featuring Ariana Grande that grapples with the uncertainty of future and reality. Many older fans of Gambino should appreciate “12.38,” featuring 21 Savage and Kadhja Bonet. It resembles some of Gambino’s past songs and highlights his clever and humorous storytelling ability, as we listen to his experience taking psilocybin and exploring love.The story is enhanced with 21 Savage’s quick-witted lines about topics ranging from police harassment to Popeyes chicken.
Following “24.19,” the rest of the album becomes more preachy and lackluster. Gambino addresses topics such as climate change, violence, and technology throughout the album. While the intent is there, and it’s clear that Gambino has complicated views on all these ideas, the listener never gets a full glimpse into what he is actually trying to depict. This is accompanied with musical sounds ranging from country, to R&B, to punk, with some songs sounding uniquely beautiful and others becoming some of Gambino’s worst productions.
“3.15.20” is one of Gambino’s riskiest creative endeavours, filled with numerous contrasting themes and instrumentals. It succeeds in defying traditional R&B and hip-hop albums, and I appreciate Gambino’s ambitious motives, even when he might have pushed the boundaries a little too far. Multiple playthroughs allow the listener to see Gambino’s personal thoughts and visions of the world, in both monumental and anti-climatic fashions. He leaves listeners in a state of introspection, confusion, and ambiguity towards the future (as if they weren’t in one already). Overall, the album’s brilliance comes from the listener taking the time to embrace Gambino’s transforming sound and seeking to understand the meaning of his work by listening to it repeatedly without skipping tracks. There is a lot to digest after listening to “3.15.20,” and with the excess of time many of us have, it may be worth the endeavour.