Past and future are a state of mind. They only exist as a wraith of colours and sounds wrapped in a thick haze. But they can be no less real than the feeling of someone else’s skin underneath your fingertips. It’s where time and senses fade and intertwine that this album finds its rationale.
Donald Glover is an elusive and wondrous artist. He doesn’t like definitions or boundaries. His place is always where ease and discomfort cross paths. His mind wanders in the deepest and darkest vortexes of alienation, but his heart is not scared of re-emerging from it in the most dazzling light. He is a post-modernist, a hyper-artist, whose universe is as diverse as the potential of his imagination. Being a writer, an actor, a musician, is all part of the same creative experience, because art, in all its forms, is for him a way to approach and explain life, in all its forms. His mind embraces the human history as well as his own, and that is why this album represents a double journey into his psyche and into mankind’s, a hallucinated and yet perfectly clear trip into obscurity.
The musical career of Childish Gambino was always marked by a deeply confessional attitude, a sort of hyper-realistic need to explore his own personal experience in order to overcome a strong sense of alienation. This insisting call for a place in the world is what drove him to fight for his individuality rather than try to fit in, as his latest ‘holistic’ project, Pharos, witnesses: a camping site in the desert of Joshua Tree, where he introduced his new music and his critically acclaimed tv show, Atlanta, to the fans, a place where people could feel like they belonged to, a home. The whole experience was meant to be represent an oasis of introspection and distance from a world of “ephemeral contents”: “a rational, progressive and spiritually fulfilling global pantheism can be reached without disregard for our process of change: evolution”.
Spirituality plays in fact a tremendous role also in this record, as expression of “the infinite”, which extends to Glover from “the Periodic Table” to “pyramids and shit, where it’s, ‘Well, that really took some foresight.’ That’s the spirituality of just existence. Or just earth. How well it works”. Such a concept was inspired by Mmanwu, traditional Nigerian masquerades performed by male members of the tribe, which embodied the living dead: during his shows Childish Gambino wore a yellow grass skirt and yellow furry booties, and danced with his face and chest painted in iridescent streaks. An extremely startling ritual where life and death are on display. The record is indeed permeated with violent sensuality and terror, frail whispers and dreadful screams, all mingled in a choral chant. And choruses are also essential: Childish Gambino’s voice raises amongst those of many others, as his music is both his and everyone else’s.
This wider dimension, this community he finally rests himself into, is a present and a past one: the parallel with the ‘70s, that is mostly apparent in the groovy sound that pervade the record, is important, because back then “it felt like people were trying to get out of their minds, with all the things that were happening — and that are happening right now. How do you start a global revolution, really? Is that possible with the systems we’ve set up? There’s something about that ’70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution”. A revolution is something that brings people together, is something above personalisms, is something that feels universal to those who are part of it. This is what this album intends to be, a call for feelings, a call for love, in all its forms, the most delicate (those of fatherhood) and the most violent (jealousy and frenzy). The inspiration itself is extremely emotional: “I remember listening to songs my dad would play — albums by the Isleys or Funkadelic — and not understanding the feeling I was feeling. 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”.
With all that’s happening nowadays, both in the wider global context and within the black community, it feels like people are experiencing an in-between phase, a moment of change that thrills though leaving us a profound sense of uncertainty and fear. And Donald Glover is not afraid of feeling scared, nor wants he to make us feel safe: he keeps us on the edge, he challenges us, he flips our perceptions and certainties. He’s able to connect past and present through Pindaric flights that are evocative and resonant, but also need courage to be accepted. That is the only way to doubt ourselves and make some real change.
With this album Childish Gambino finally finds his own voice within the crowd, as a leader and as a misfit, and asks us to allow ourselves to feel like individuals, to feel like we belong to something bigger, to just feel.
In this weave of emotional awakening microcosm and macrocosm are one, just as past and future.