03.15.20, and the complex union of Childish Gambino and Donald Glover
03.15.20 speaks to the push-and-pull of both the world we live in and the artist behind it, bringing an ever-ensuing battle to the surface.
This whole COVID-19 deal has put a lot on hold.
In some cases, it’s the interest of public safety: I’m idling about, a casual employee whose employment got all the more laidback, unable to work the local cinema for fear of infection. In others, it’s all about the money: films are seldom released to empty cinemas, Dolittle aside, and studios have been pulling films from their release schedules faster than Marvel can greenlight new ones. We’re quick to clown celebrities – and rightfully so – but spare a thought for Daniel Craig, a cheque-hungry hustler who’s stuck being the world’s most desirable MI6 agent for another few months. It’s more coincidence than another pandemic-induced freeze, but similarly stuck is Donald Glover, a man at odds with the mantle that made him a household name.
Glover’s new record, the unceremoniously titled 03.15.20, is credited to both the man and the mantle. It really depends on who you ask: the initial release, streamed online at the unambiguous donaldgloverpresents.com, was credited to the man, but the official streaming release is marked as Gambino. Wolf+Rothstein, the creative agency co-founded by Glover, considers it his own, and even RCA – the label presumably involved in this mysterious mess – acknowledges the variance on their website. The record has finally been submitted to streaming services, but the Gambino version arrives without a true title, devoid of almost all track names, and without the very album art he posted just days prior. It almost makes you think of industry rule number 4080, but considering how totally opaque that politicking is, who’s to say what’s really going on? One thing’s for sure: strange things are afoot at the RCA.
It’s interesting, then, to consider the record as the first steps of an artist reborn: the Gambino moniker all but jettisoned, the man behind the mask has moved on from his Wu-imparted rap name, a staple of 2010s hip-hop that saw derision, indifference and acclaim. If that algorithmic alias recalls a time when the self-confessed ‘black nerd’ struggled to fit into hip-hop, the abandonment of it suggests a newfound assuredness, the kind you might develop if you’d cut a few of the last decade’s most iconic and well-heeled crossover hits. It does away with the cookie-cutter brand he affixed to himself, an artificial label irrespective of how titanic it proved, and runs with the fierce multi-potentialite underpinning it. Still, it’s more a continuation than a refutation, and 03.15.20 takes that philosophy in stride, as prone to reminiscing as it is pondering the ever-uncertain future.
03.15.20 finds Glover reigniting the ambition that coursed through Because The Internet, fusing that sweeping vision with the Parliament-Funkadelic-inspired melodies of Awaken My Love and working in the unabashed expression of Camp. Algorhythm hits as a bass-heavy condemnation of information age interconnectedness, walking that familiar line between commentary and celebration, whilst Time – the second and final named track – mixes autotune, acoustic guitars, bassy synths, tinkering percussion, choral arrangements and an unexpectedly lowkey Ariana Grande. It’s clear Glover isn’t afraid to get lost within his own compositions, that vocal slowly evolving into a nigh-wordless melody as the six-minute cut barrels on, propelled by its own hulking momentum. It’s a far cry from the dense, comedic wordiness that made him the game’s hottest outsider.
12.38, a wandering tale about his first mushroom trip, deals in the rosy shades of Andre and Prince, adding yet another notch to that funk-infused lineage. There’s outright references to Vibrate, The Love Below standout, and vocal passages that recall Camille, Prince’s pitch-shifted alter-ego, but Glover’s story weaves through dog parks and false starts, an inextricably modern tale of the here-and-now. The bittersweet story of falling in too deep on psilocybin is punctuated by Khadja Bonet’s brief bridge – “this ain't special, baby, this is fun” – a gentle refutation of the best-laid plans.
A walk through the park is the perfect journey for Glover, who’s not longing for a return to classic leisure as much as he’s striving to create a new normal. The ever-accelerating rate of reality has been a preoccupation since the days of Because The Internet, and Feels Like Summer – included on the record as 42.26 – mused over the “seven billion souls that move around the sun” without “a chance to slow down.” That same fear rears its head on Time, where he implicates himself in that onslaught: “Seven billion people / Tryna free themselves / Said a billion prayers / Tryna save myself / I can see it coming / But it's moving fast.”
“At this point with the internet, it feels like we're just giving a handgun to an infant and going, ‘Don't shoot yourself’,” Glover told Vice back in 2013, wary of the very mechanism by which he broke out. “It speeds up everything and we get information faster, and I don't see the flip side of that,” he later elaborated. “Like, people calling me a ni***r or a fa***ot isn't new—the internet just makes it easier. I don't see where the good in that lies.” It’s a fact that’s since seen him largely divest from Instagram, a platform he’s used to express those anxieties, as well as the celebrity economy as a whole. There was a time when Glover was an active stand-up comic: now, fans seldom see the artist speak at all.
47.48 recalls Awaken’s Baby Boy, substituting parental angst with “the violence,” a force that reverberates throughout the track as it does the day-to-day. There’s no real answer to the ways of a cruel world, but Glover tries anyway, regaling us over an easygoing funk chassis: “Just take care of your soul / Let the beauty unfold / You'll get through it.” It almost seems poor advice, but it’s worked for the man himself, a once-anxious and depressed artist sounding more assured and confident than ever before. The final track, 53.49, pits love – from others and the self – against a barrage of intense stress, casting those gentle and ferring affirmations as oases in amongst his chaotic hypotheticals. If there’s any one refrain that anchors the project, it’s amongst the last we hear:
“There is love in every moment
Under the sun, boy
You do what you wanna do…”
Donald Glover isn’t afraid of the past, but as 03.15.20 shows, it’s no place to live. I guess that could be the thrust of it all: unplug, recalibrate, reflect and unwind; unearth the magnificence of the now, shut out the distractions and make the most of the moment. There’s nothing quite like the present, and I mean it – the past is little more than an ever-decaying memory, and the future a wild, fictitious projection. There are traces of those memories in the record – pored-over punchlines befitting Camp; harsher bass-laden cuts reminiscent of BTI; and palettes, structures and entire melodies from Awaken, My Love! – and the release through Glover’s recent mcDJ imprint, named for his mid-’00s alter-ego, proves another backward glance, but there’s no denying that 03.15.20 is an album of the times.
03.15.20 collects Glover’s expansive repertoire and puts it to use championing love and presence, and in a world so endlessly cynical, there’s something to be said for the outright and earnest. It’s easy to get lost in this ever-complicating whirlwind of a world, worried for the intangible and improbable. Forget all that – what can you do with this very moment? It might be the only time you get to “take care of your soul.”
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