Childish Gambino’s ‘3.15.20’ is an almost-algorhythmic musical masterpiece

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If you are looking for something to do while social distancing, consider listening to the new Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) album “3.15.20,” ideally in order and without any interruptions or distractions. “3.15.20” is something entirely different for Glover, or maybe it is less “different” than a conglomeration of all of his previous EPs and albums into one wonderful audio experience rife with musical beauty and lyrical commentary. Throughout the album, Glover grapples with the questions of existence, race and happiness just to name a few. His approach to each of these questions is successful because of the album’s flow and simplicity. Unlike Glover’s previous works, which at times seem to be searching for a sound, “3.15.20” marks the culmination of over a decade of way-finding for Glover, who seems to have finally found his sound.

The album begins with “0.0”: all tracks, with the exception of the second and third — “Algorhythm” and “Time” — are titled with their time stamp. “0.0,” much like the overture to a musical, sets the tone for the audio experience Glover has curated for us. He begins the album with a hint of tranquility and a tonal continuation of the last song (“53.49”) on the album marking “0.0” as both a beginning and end point for listeners. The musical stylings of the album quickly shift as we are introduced to the quicker, harsher sounds of “Algorhythm,”which utilizes both a catchy repetitive beat and funk to comment on the algorithmic nature of the music industry — i.e. its ability to pump out catchy, meaningless beats quickly. Glover seamlessly follows up this song with “Time.” “Time” presents another tonal shift as Glover, now joined by Ariana Grande, mulls over the questions of existence and time. Glover continues these tonal shifts throughout the album, but he maintains a feeling of uniformity throughout the entirety of the work as each song fades seamlessly into the next.

Throughout “3.15.20,”  you can hear reference to Glover’s previous works through the songs’ tones, styles or direct reuse of certain stylistic features. Some listeners, for example, might hear a radio playing in the background of “12.38” which may remind them of a similar cue used in “III. Telegraph Ave. (“Oakland” by Lloyd)” on Glover’s 2013 album “Because the Internet.” The album also makes use of some of Glover’s previously released works, most notably “Feels Like Summer” from his 2018 EP “Summer Pack.” Glover places “Feels Like Summer” in the latter half of his album as track “42.26.” Much like Glover, “Feels Like Summer” seems to have finally found its balance in “3.15.20.”

The album is more lyrically simple then some of Glover’s other works, but in this simplicity, Glover seems to find his stride, using this new deep cut style to his advantage. For example, on “19.10,” Glover reflects on his place in a society that seeks to marginalize and exploit him because of his race and culture. In this track, Glover has no need for the drawn-out flashy lyrical stylings of Camp-era Gambino; instead he excels in his simple yet poignant delivery of “To be beautiful Is to be hunted/ I can’t change the truth, I can’t get you used to this.” Similarly, Glover’s reflection on beauty, found in the final three tracks of “3.15.20,” succeeds because of this same eloquent simplicity. In the penultimate track of the album (“47.48”) Glover explores the effects of violence on childhood innocence. This track succeeds in this exploration because of its lyrical simplicity and its ending. Glover ends the track with a recording of his son, which adds a further note of urgency to the song’s contemplation on the loss of childhood innocence. Much like the rest of the album, the urgency of these tracks is almost-juxtaposed with their musical stylings, as they meld an upbeat tone with lyrics and themes that almost demand the opposite. This form of almost-tonal dissonance however adds to the audio experience that Glover presents as it mirrors the cognitive dissonance that these issues are often met with by American consumers of popular media.

“3.15.20” is not an easy listen. It demands your attention. It is an experience. If you want an album that is easy to listen to, “3.15.20” may not be the album for you. But, if you want an album that you can enjoy for years to come, that you can spend weeks thinking about, and that is the culmination of the Childish Gambino project, then “3.15.20” is the album for you.

Contact Ari Gabriel at arijgab ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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