Childish Gambino was a ghost on social media for nearly a year, deleting all information from his Twitter and Instagram.
His silence tormented me, yet rumors suggested he would release a project in 2016. On June 17, Gambino incited online hysteria when he tweeted a cryptic link to an app with a mysterious countdown clock.
The frustratingly vague PHAROS App ominously counted down to the ticket release of a musical event Gambino referred to as PHAROS Earth. Once the countdown hit zero on June 24, I immediately purchased a ticket to PHAROS Earth, an immersive visual experience and live performance of his then-secret album at the Institute of Mentalphysics in Joshua Tree, California, on Sept. 4.
Gambino released the music performed at PHAROS Earth in September as the album “Awaken, My Love!” on Friday. “Awaken, My Love!” represents a complete deviation from previous work, as Gambino combines the isolated energy cultivated at PHAROS Earth with his emotional growth as a new father on the 11-track album.
At PHAROS, I experienced Gambino’s personal world of funk revival and alternative Blackness.
On Sept. 4, orange sunlight spilled into a fading pink sky against the jagged Joshua Tree-lined horizon, the scene of Gambino’s PHAROS concert experience. Fans shuffled into a towering metal dome illuminated by blue LED lights, unsure if we would be greeted by Gambino the rapper, Donald Glover the conceptualist or a new persona of the artist.
We desperately craned our necks to stare upward at the dome ceiling; projected images of space drew the crowd closer to an unidentified planet. The thundering bass shook the complex and the audience landed on a surreal new world. We had awoken on PHAROS Earth and a choir began to perform the intro of the song “Me and Your Mama,” a single off “Awaken, My Love!”
At that moment, I knew the album version of the performance would be phenomenal. I assumed the recording wouldn’t compare to the live instruments and choir of PHAROS, but “Awaken, My Love!” absolutely captures the intimacy of the concert with the focal point of the album being the music rather than Gambino’s vocals.
With PHAROS Earth, Gambino has forged a new frontier of multimedia that supersedes the expectations of a generic pop culture. PHAROS went beyond a surprise album release or visual album project. Gambino created his own universe of virtual reality performances, app-incorporating concerts and constantly evolving, ever-secretive projects with his art collectives, Royalty and Wolf & Rothstein.
“Awaken, My Love!” is not a new direction for Gambino, but a complete transferral of his soul into his art. Gambino bleeds raw adoration for his child, born in October, on his album. Whining electric guitars and choir arrangements in a blend of Afro-psychedelic funk and soul are samples of a vibrant emerging of Gambino as father, musician and black artist.
Gambino bares emotional vulnerability in the music with his complete lack of rapping. Gone are the red hoodies, short shorts and quirky bars of Gambino’s 2011 album “Camp.” The conceptual narrative of 2013’s “Because the Internet” has given way into unexplored introspection by Gambino on his latest album.
Gambino takes to unabashed and sporadic screeches mixed with melodic crooning throughout “Awaken, My Love!” He channels matured existentialism and growing paternal instinct in “Baby Boy” as he somberly delivers, “There was a time before you / And there will be a time after you / Though these bodies are not ours, / Walk tall little one.”
The sensory experience and Afrobeats aesthetic of the PHAROS Earth live concert translates beautifully into the romantic production of the album. The bouncing vibes of the song “California” embody the swaying pop of the PHAROS crowd, while “Terrified” features a sensual bass that swaggers cooly like the animated tribal skeletons projected on the dome walls. Gambino has matured into a man of soul and substance, where seductive harmonies melting into a groovy beat create a warm, divine atmosphere in “Boogieman.”
“Awaken, My Love!” is a spiritual manifestation of paternal affection: Visceral emotion and silken deliveries are as futuristic as they are familiar. I felt the astounding love he put into the music and experienced the raw intensity and innovative showmanship of PHAROS Earth.
Gambino refuses to be defined. He has come far from being a self-prescribed “blerd,” or black nerd, who found his rap name in a Wu-Tang name generator. Now, Childish Gambino has awoken a new era in his artistic development with the fusion of unrestrained soul and psychedelic funk.
Where Gambino will go next remains a mystery, but I eagerly await the intense future of the PHAROS universe. I trust Gambino to change the game forever, leading us into a new dimension of music and art.