Ambition in mainstream music isn’t something that should be thrown to the wayside. In an epoch where much of the songs topping the Billboard charts use many of the same motifs in an effort to nudge each other off the slightly diminishing returns of the streaming age, it takes courage to do something new, especially for an established artist. Donald Glover has never been one to shy away from such a challenge. As one of the dominant renaissance men of the 2010s, Glover has gone from a sitcom star-in-the-making to a multimedia sensation in a matter of years. I’ve followed him and his media transformation since his early days on NBC’s “Community,” and it’s been inspirational, to say the least.
Glover’s evolution in music, in his Wu Tang Clan name-generated moniker “Childish Gambino” has also been something to behold. Gambino’s decade and major-label career kicked off with 2011’s “Camp,” the “Camp Rock” of turn-of-the-decade music: objectively mediocre but with nostalgia packed into every minute. Every song is packed with early Donald’s quintessential cheese and goofiness, and it brings back any fringe millennial/zoomer like me to simpler times. 2013’s “Because The Internet” saw Gambino breaking through to the mainstream and asserting himself as a force to be reckoned with, doubling with his departure from “Community.” “Internet” saw Gambino start to experiment with new sounds in his production, and it saw his first foray into concept album making, a tool he would later return to. 2016’s “ “Awaken, My Love!”,” Gambino’s third album, brought a more funk-inspired influence to his music, leaving his pop-tinged rap roots behind. For one of the most visible and recognizable men in the music industry, no one could guess what he would do next — only that it wouldn’t be a safe move.
“3.15.20” sees Gambino follow through on that, dropping without much warning on the titular date through a livestream, followed by a digital release a week afterwards. At first glance, the album seems almost unfinished. The album cover is a null set — just a white void. With the exception of two tracks, all of the songs are titled by the timestamp of when they appear in “3.15” (ex: 0.00, 12.38, etc.). However, this intentional decision to catch the world off guard with his first full-length release in four years yields limited returns.
Of course, there are light spots in the difficult-to-parse tracklisting. The Ariana Grande-featured “Time” — one of two non-numeric song titles — is a beautiful albeit lengthy track that deserves to get heavy rotation. Then again, “Redbone” was almost five and a half minutes. “19.10” is a lick of the mid-2010s Gambino, with its punchy and infectious beat refusing to succumb to the overworked premise which contains it. Even within the many so-so tracks on this thing, elements of Gambino’s best work can be mined out of the crevices. A great album lies in the framework of this thing.
This album, like its entire concept, is unfinished. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, as modern infinite mastering and reworking of modern music can prove detrimental to creativity; Kendrick Lamar’s “untitled unmastered.” is an example of this idea worked to near-perfection. However, Gambino’s effort has about the same amount of hits and misses. It’s hard to call this album average, because I do appreciate the obvious and unmistakable ambition that went into it. Unfortunately, it kind of is.
Daniel Cohn is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.