There is a moment, two minutes into the slow burn of “Me and Your Mama,” the opening track of Childish Gambino‘s new album Awaken, My Love!, that operates almost as an audio assault. With no warning, meandering synths give way to a wall of distortion; tentative, breathy chants become a menacing guffaw; tempo changes become the new norm and a realization comes into focus: This is not the Childish Gambino record you were expecting.
By the time Donald Glover‘s anguished, wailing vocals recede and the backing band returns to that initial groove, it’s with the addition of a reverberating snare drum, a sound that’s unmistakable to anyone who has ever tried to trace the roots of funk and psychedelic soul back to Funkadelic and, in particular, the 1971 epic “Maggot Brain.”
“We actually built a drum room in Donald’s house just to get the exact drum sound we wanted; it took a couple weeks to build,” says producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ludwig Goransson, who co-wrote and and co-produced the entirety of Awaken, My Love! and has worked with Glover for nearly a decade. “There are small little ingredients and notes [on the album] that are very well-thought-out, arrangement-wise, and there’s a lot of ear candy in there happening… I feel like it’s kind of the natural evolution of [his] sound.”
What Goransson sees as a natural evolution — one that started with Glover expanding beyond just rapping on 2013’s Because the Internet, and continued with more sung vocals on 2014’s Kauai — caught most people by surprise when “Me and Your Mama” was released as Awaken‘s first single in November. The song is an unmistakable nod to George Clinton‘s seminal psych-funk collective — particularly Funkadelic’s early 1969-1975 output, before Parliament‘s party-funk horns and swirling Moogs replaced gritty guitars as the main driver of the groove — and steers home an influence that pops up again and again all over the album.
Gambino’s “Have Some Love,” for instance, is a riff on Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That”; “Boogieman” seems to be the end result of tossing “Super Stupid” and “Hit It and Quit It” into a blender; Awaken‘s second single, the excellent “Redbone,” recalls Bootsy Collins‘ “I’d Rather Be With You.” The only sample on the album comes on “Riot,” which lifts the groove from Funkadelic’s “Good to Your Earhole.” The rest was created by Glover and Goransson with a small circle of band members, largely recorded at Glover’s rental home in the Hollywood Hills.
“The whole album started out with me, Donald and a couple musicians just being in the studio together for a week and basically just experimenting, Donald just kind of being open to anything,” Goransson says. “But it was also taking a step away from computers and to have the whole recording process filled with more air and live performances. I think that opened up a lot of new doors for us.”
Goransson, who was born and raised in Sweden and moved to Los Angeles in 2007, admits he wasn’t the most versed in funk and psych-soul traditions before Glover introduced him to P-Funk and Sly and the Family Stone records. “When I worked with Donald on [2011’s] Camp, I hadn’t produced much hip-hop before, so I had to kind of soak in that and do my research on that,” he says. “With this, as a musician I have a jazz and classical and blues background, but I still had to do the research on the funk part. I kind of missed out on the psychedelic funk [thing].”
The musical direction, then, came straight from Glover, who explained part of the inspiration behind the album in a recent interview with Billboard. “I remember listening to songs my dad would play — albums by the Isleys or Funkadelic — and not understanding the feeling I was feeling,” he said in November, a few weeks before Awaken! was released. “I remember hearing a Funkadelic scream and being like, ‘Wow, that’s sexual and it’s scary.’ Not having a name for that, though; just having a feeling. That’s what made it great.”
That callback to childhood made sense to Goransson, whose guitarist father would play blues records around him growing up, similar to Glover’s experience. “A lot of the music that Donald was trying to make was also coming from his childhood,” he says. “And for me, it was kind of a similar feeling; I remember my dad playing blues music with such a joy and passion and happiness, so it kind of evoked a lot of music from my childhood.”
With that as a starting point, Glover and Goransson went to work, beginning from scratch and experimenting both musically and vocally, with Glover pushing his voice to its limits. “I heard him sing a lot of stuff I’d never heard him physically been able to sing before,” Goransson says. “We didn’t pitch his voice; that’s all him singing. And a couple songs, like ‘Stand Tall’ for example, that was all one take with his vocals.”
The result became an album that sounded at once both new and familiar, at times full of refreshingly tight grooves — at others, perhaps maddeningly derivative. Goransson says the process involved trying to “reinvent” some of the elements of freedom and unbridled creativity that Clinton’s collective tapped while consciously moving away from the looped nature of many recordings today, whether in hip-hop or beyond.
“When you [record] in an organic way, I think you can feel the difference, you can feel the air in there, you can feel it, just, breathing,” he says. “Even if you can’t put your finger on what it is, you can still feel it in your body.”
Which brings the conversation back to “Me and Your Mama,” the first track the band finished and the one that opened the doors of possibility for the entire album that followed. It brings this back to that first jarring tempo change, two minutes in, when what Goransson calls the “rock section” rolls through and pulverizes any notion that this album would stick to verse-chorus-verse conventions.
“When that hits, it’s like a big blast: you don’t really know what’s going on, but it makes you feel a little uneasy,” he says. “And then there’s a big break and we go back into the original key again. It’s like, ‘Wow, I can breathe again.’
“There are a lot of small details like that that we put a lot of time and thought into crafting. And I think you can feel that.”