Review: On “3.15.20”, Childish Gambino overindulges in his message

The musical evolution of Childish Gambino has been a well-documented one. From the corny but technically sound backpack raps of Camp to the wondrously funky Awaken, My Love!, Gambino has always been pushing the boundaries of his art, solidifying him as one of the most unique artists in mainstream music today.

I can’t talk about 3.15.20 without mentioning “This is America” however, which was the politically-fueled turning point that clearly inspired the direction of his latest record. Putting the US on blast, Gambino condemned the gun violence and lack of empathy put forth by its people, creating a song that encapsulated his detest for modern American sentiments on race.

On this album, he sets his sights further. Choosing to provide cultural commentary on the world at large while also honing in on his personal insecurities and fears…to mixed results.

Framing 3.15.20 as a ‘single-song opus’ (hence the lack of song titles), the album is meant to be heard in a single sitting. So “0.00”, despite its 3-minute length yet fleeting nature, structurally makes sense as it eases listeners into the sonic themes of the album. However, its droning length loses my attention before the album even kicks off; but it helps that its followed up by the great 3-song stretch of “Algorhythm”, “Time” and “12.38”.

“Algorhythm”, with its heavy industrial beat, is a definite Yeezus inspired cut that works wonderfully as a dusky dance track. The grooves set an effective backdrop for his railings on how people have submitted their lives to the ‘algorithms’ of society; of how we’ve turned to drones that are dictated by what the ‘algorithms’ prefer.

The social commentary then carries on throughout the record. On “Time”, Gambino questions our place in the world and whether we’ll be able to leave a mark before time eventually takes us all. The song’s gentle guitars and thumping drums create a sonic palette that’s equal parts sci-fi and grounded, which fits in perfectly with the theme he goes for.

Same goes for “12.38” as it features similarly sparse yet engaging production, without the strong thematic imagery though given its a by-the-numbers love song. It does feature arguably one of 21 Savage’s best ever guess verses, and helps elevate it to be the best song on 3.15.20 by a mile.

Then, the record takes a nosedive for the next 3 songs. Both “19.10” and “24.19” are obvious Kauai era-inspired cuts that are way too unsubstantial to leave any lasting impression. The reverb-heavy vocals detract any impact that Gambino’s message might have left, and the excruciating song lengths with little-to-no structural variety makes them painfully boring.

“32.22” is another industrial-tinged track but unlike “Algorhythm”‘s tight structure, this song is all over the place. Gambino’s rapping is muddy and each production element is ugly-fighting each other for dominance, making it difficult to single out any aspect to latch onto.

Though puzzling, following that song up with the adorably bouncy “35.31” serves as a pleasant palette cleanser, that also marks the album’s slight return-to-form.

The ‘Little foot, Big foot, Get out the way’ chorus is irresistibly catchy, and framing the theme of drug-dealing under the pretense of a feel-good hunting trip feels like a narrative idea that would be right at home on Awaken, My Love!.

Same goes for the last 2 tracks on the album “47.48” and “53.49”, both employing heavy funk elements while mixing in a bit of contemporary charm that Because The Internet had. The former being a slow jam of societal violence, and the latter a tweaked out celebration of life.

Both are strong tracks that offset the staleness of the prior 2 – “39.28” and “42.26” (“Feels Like Summer”), which are again weak Kauai-inspired offerings. However, all the AML influenced cuts all pale in comparison to the original, as the production is less intricate and vocals just aren’t as charismatic.

Final Verdict

3.15.20 feels like a ‘Greatest Hits’ album of Gambino’s diverse discography but instead of commemorations of his achievements, it only highlights how inferior most of the material here are.

There are still great tracks on here like as mentioned earlier but they don’t hold a candle when compared to their past counterparts like “53.49” to “Zombie” or “35.31” to “California”. Which makes “Algorhythm” all the more disappointing since it could have a intriguing sonic departure for a new Childish Gambino era, had it been an album full of that sound.

Instead, what we are left with is an album with scattershot messaging that is poignant but fails to leave much of an impact, as the music itself doesn’t support it enough. If the music behind the message is weak, listeners’ attention would be lost and the artist would have lost already half the battle.

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Based in Melbourne and Malaysia. Jensen is a part-time journalist and full-time music fan.

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