Review Summary: "To be beautiful is to be hunted".03.15.20
's usage of the words above in the obstinately catchy "19.10" ranks as the most dramatic, attention-grabbing lyric I've heard in a long time. It recalls so much with so little: minds race to the video of "This is America" in its final moments; from there to the cacophony of noise and heavy breathing which ends "24.19" and the first half of the album; to haunting, soul-wracking images and frames from Glover's Atlanta
; to an adenoidal, shaky whine on his previous album, heartbreakingly pleading "don't take my baby boy, don't take my pride and joy". With a single line, Donald Glover manages to recall the best, the most unforgettable moments of his entire artistic output. And we're only five songs deep.
Would it feel dismissive to say that point is where the album really starts? It's not a matter of quality so much as clarity of vision. See "Algorhythm" self-consciously shrouding itself in robotic monotone and breaking down at the end like the hard drive is malfunctioning, seemingly aware that its too-dense verses aren't really getting a message across. See "Time", melodically a surefire hit; maybe too much so, because with a Jai Paul assist the song smothers itself in lo-fi splutterings and varispeed pitching so that Glover and Ariana Grande sound more like voices echoing around a sinking ship than bold, proud superstars. Things really get great with "12.38", a hilarious song which sees Gambino weaponising his full range to spin some The Love Below
-style seduction. But the song's attention to detail marks it as more than your usual sex jam - the girl's bookshelf with N. K. Jemisin and bell hooks, the beat-by-beat breakdown of Glover's protagonist taking psilocybin, a surprisingly serious ending where he wakes up alone, "Toni singing me another sad song". It's a scattered beginning to 03.15.20
, is what I'm saying, perhaps coasting by more on bold sounds and big-name features; not in itself a bad thing, but those of us obsessing since Coachella had plenty of time to be ready for an album blending "Awaken, My Love!"
and Because the Internet
's wildest moments. And then "19.10" hits, and nothing is the same.
That's not to to say this is the only song to deal with heavier topics. The ecstatic "35.31" instantly cleaves the fanbase of this album in half based on how much ridiculousness you're willing to take, but has a lot of success taking an indie pop instrumental that could convince your grandparents to buy an insurance plan and letting Glover positively whistle a tale of drug dealing and violence on his way to the graveyard. "Feels Like Summer" aims for a similar contrast between chill-out instrumental and dramatic lyrics, but the addition of some background animal noises isn't enough to make the 2018 song feel fresh as it stumbles down the same repetitive melody. Most rewarding for fans is penultimate track "47.48", which bears a strong resemblance to "Baby Boy" filtered through a darker worldview ("Are you scared of the world? Is it hard to live?", the guy who wrote "Bonfire" croons confrontingly). The similarities, you realise, are deliberate when Glover's son Legend himself appears on the track, adorably preaching the importance of self-love and setting the stage for the closer. The contrast couldn't be more clear: where "Awaken"
interrogated Glover's internal feelings about fatherhood and love, 03.15.20
often reflects his gaze outward, to wonder what kind of world he's raising his son in.
But I digress, because I came here to argue that the whole project centres on "19.10", easily one of the finest songs he's ever released. The beat gallops along like a three-wheeled wagon, never quite allowing you to figure out its momentum or where the emphasis should be placed. This couldn't fit better with the lyric, where the verses see Glover talking to his recently deceased father about love and beauty before the hook brings up the injustices of the world. It makes for a gorgeous parallel to "53.49", the closing statement of the album. A fiery take on Kendrick Lamar's "i" as performed by Glover's best impersonation of James Brown, the song spits out come-ons, brags and cerebral head-scratchers like "amber-coloured lotus flowers when I touch the sky" in quick succession, but makes room for a chorus where Glover's father imparts a message of boundless, universal love. If it's truly the last Childish Gambino song, it's hard to fault the note he went on.
You have to wonder, though, if it's really the end. If 03.15.20
is a full stop to one of the most dynamic, inventive, frustratingly inconsistent discographies of the last decade. I'm not convinced Glover's multi-hyphenate brain could ever stop working away, creating shows and songs and short films and botching album rollouts to a ridiculous degree. Maybe this is more of an ellipsis for fans to continue on; after all, this is an album with a hole in the centre, one that looks and sounds a lot like "Human Sacrifice", the conspicuously absent best song from the 03.15.20
era. Maybe those songs are for us to title, that blank space for us to make artwork. More likely, though, they're not; real-world events forced a rush release that marked 03.15.20
as frustrating and divisive as anything its creator has made in the past 10 years. In a way, that's the answer I prefer. It's nice to think a man like Donald Glover, obscenely talented, innovative and brilliant, can make some stupid fumbles like the rest of us.