In 2018, fresh off the heels of the release of his Summer Pack EP, I wrote a piece called “Childish Gambino Finally Has Everyone’s Attention, But He Doesn’t Know What to Do With It.” In it, I argued that, through hiding behind a series of artistic reinventions, Gambino had successfully added several disparate tools to his musical wheelhouse. Still, he’d shown a limited vision for how to combine them.
I ended the piece on a cautiously optimistic note, stating that “much like Donald Glover eventually used his experience as a stand-up comic, writer, and actor to create Atlanta, I’m holding onto faith that Childish Gambino will one day reconcile his talents as a rapper, R&B crooner, funk musician, and pop star to craft a similarly breathtaking magnum opus.”
But then, Glover went silent on the musical front. He starred in movies like The Lion King reboot and Solo, occupying the public’s attention via other mediums, but he didn’t release so much as a new single during these 18 months. Leading up to his headlining performance at 2019’s Coachella, Glover subverted expectations, using the stage to debut a string of unreleased songs and deliver an emotional sermon about the value of holding on to the present. His film Guava Island, which was released the same weekend, arrived similarly with no official soundtrack.
In truth, I have no idea what to expect from Donald Glover’s latest release as Childish Gambino, 3.15.20. But we’re about to find out. In typical 1-listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, pausing or rewinding songs. Just my gut reaction in real-time.
Beginning with a low hum, “0.00” seems very warm. It’s the type of record you’d hear on Spotify under a playlist called “ambient songs to fall asleep/focus to.” I don’t know precisely what the word “binaural” means, but this feels like the time you’d use it. I can imagine hearing this in a store that sells incense and crystals while a pushy salesperson tries to con me into paying for a session in a sensory deprivation tank. A minute in, the only vocals so far have been an oddly distorted refrain of “We are, we are, we are.” Oh, it’s over. An odd inclusion.
A song perfect for a rave in a dystopian film. “Algorythm” is definitely one of the records Glover played at Coachella. Or is it? This is the closest to normal rapping we’ve heard from Glover so far. The pre-chorus is catchy. The production is so textured. “Here is something that is going to make you move and groove.” This sentiment from the pre-chorus seems to clash tonally with the sentiments he’s been expressing during the verses. Gospel choirs into more primal sounds and distortion. I thought there was another huge drop coming like the one that led into the first chorus. As it turns out, the record just ends unceremoniously.
“Seven billion people trying to free themselves.” Glover is going full first-semester philosophy major, and I’m here for it. The production sounds like lasers shooting. I wonder if they sampled a game of laser tag from a child’s birthday party. “Time” is probably the catchiest of the last few songs. Ariana Grande, I think? [Editor’s Note: Yes.] She sounds great. It’s a nice change of pace to hear a different voice for a while. A weird pop song, very melodious, but not beholden to a structure of any sort. It’s disorienting. You keep thinking a motif will reappear, but then it doesn’t. I’ll have to revisit this one to unravel the ambitiousness of these compositions. There’s just so much going on.
“Vibrate” is starting strong. Glover is rap-singing on a song with some hot chords. He’s telling a story about taking mushrooms with a love interest. “Tracee Ellis with it when you throw back.” Again, sadly, there’s no real momentum here. It feels very stream-of-conscious, even though Glover wrote the lyrics intricately. A truly odd choice to not include a chorus here, given the relatively linear nature of the production. 21 Savage! He sounds so good on this production. “I’m on a private jet eating Popeyes chicken / Flexing like I’m eating Popeye’s spinach.” A pleasant change of pace. SZA! She sounds so good. It’s been so long since I’ve heard her on a song that wasn’t made for a Trolls movie, I forgot how much I missed her voice. Rather than a true guest feature, her voice is being used as an instrument here. It’s being chopped and screwed and run through a bunch of digital filters. Let’s call this an unconventional outro.
The transitions on 03.15.20 could stand to be a lot smoother. Here’s Glover again. There’s a four on the floor beat pulsating under this that feels like a welcome change of pace away from the more impenetrable compositions. My head is nodding. Have I mentioned how frustrated I am with all the filters on Glover’s voice? “To be happy really means that someone else ain’t.” What a great bar. A lot going on here musically, but I imagine pockets of earworms will burrow themselves in my head on re-listen.
“24.19” begins with an angry snarl. More wildlife sounds. I don’t know if this album needs intros like this before every song. They’re not adding anything tangible. I love how the melody of the production corresponds with the vocal melody here; it’s so pretty. One of the more accessible songs on here. Glover is coming through clearly for the first time in a while, and his vocals are so wrenching. A clear standout. It’s still a little noisier than it needs to be, but there are some soothing harp sounds here to offset everything else going on. “24.19” overstays its welcome towards the end, but otherwise, a pretty good note to end on.
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Someone is panting desperately while tribal drums are beaten underneath. The bassline just kicked in. It’s the soundtrack to a rave scene in The Matrix. I think this is one of the songs he performed at Coachella. This vocal delivery is odd. He’s literally mumbling. Some industrial distortion with what sounds like Travis Scott-esque ad-libs underneath. It’s all coming together as the beat is dropping. He’s still growling primally instead of singing lyrics, but the result is oddly intoxicating. “32.22” wastes this momentum, though, and then just fades out with the sounds of wind chimes and animals.
A bit of a country twang. Unexpected. There’s a filter on Gambino’s voice I don’t care for. His vocals sound better when they’re allowed to float. The chorus sounds like something TikTok teens are going to have a field day creating dances to. The way the vocal delivery is syncopated like percussion eventually creeps up on you and burrows itself in your brain. The instrumental keeps adding new elements, creating a more lush listen. Alright, this breakdown is what I’m talking about. Ludwig Göransson is so good at crafting cinematic breakdowns that perfectly match Glover’s vocal tone
Amid a global pandemic, please, don’t go to the party. As for track three, Glover’s vocals here have a digital effect on them that sound a bit like the first few seconds of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” intro. “Where are those subtle men with the decency to admit they might be wrong?” I may have misheard it, but that’s a bar that feels very apropos for this current moment in history. We’re in outer space. The verses are discordant in a way I’m not enjoying. They’re not building any momentum. The piano is beautiful, but this record has no drums or anything to cling onto musically.
10. “42.26” (“Feels Like Summer”)
The intro begins with the sounds of animals grunting. There seems to be somewhat of a theme of Glover using jungle sounds here. Oh, this is “Feels Like Summer,” one of the two songs Glover released on the aforementioned Summer Pack. It sounds a bit different than the version on that EP. The production is weirder; a lot more sounds in the background. I know he remixed the record for Guava Island, so I wonder if this is that version instead. It really is a pleasant song. Glover’s falsetto is so pretty when he taps into it. As a standalone piece, this is a perfectly cool song; I just didn’t understand why he chose to release it directly after “This Is America.” The latter felt like such a statement, and this feels like movie montage music. You can imagine this playing over footage of Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield miming a flirty conversation in that new romantic comedy, The Photograph.
These guitars! “47.48 sounds like something Timbaland would have made in the ‘90s/early 2000s when he was producing all of Aaliyah’s output. A bit of twang on this, too. “The Violence” is hard. Where’s Bubba Sparxxx? There’s a sound here that sounds like a rainmaker being sloshed around. Interesting choice. Okay, it quickly transformed into something much more serious and psychedelic. This filter is back on Glover’s voice. It’s making it hard to form a personal attachment to the music. “Don’t worry about tomorrow, the violence /don’t worry about tomorrow, the violence.” It’s unsettling the way he keeps repeating the refrain “the violence” over and over again. I get the impression Glover was trying to make a bigger statement on this song than I picked up on first listen. I will need to go back and revisit. The song ends with Glover talking to his daughter. “I love myself,” she says, before asking Glover, “Do you love yourself?” Man, this literal toddler could teach me a thing or two about having self-esteem.
I was not expecting “53.49” to begin with Glover doing a punk impression. It’s like “Black Skinhead” if Kanye had committed to the bit. “There is love in every moment under the sun.” The chorus seems to conflict musically with the verses. They could be two different songs. I like Glover’s delivery here. It’s self-assured. The bridge is unreal, too. “Under The Sun” is so weird, but it might be one of my favorites. It’s like a more accessible version of something you might have heard on “Awaken My Love!” It sounds like Cee-Lo Green was dropped into 2020, embraced all his outsider tendencies, and picked up right where he left off.
Final (First Listen) Thoughts on Childish Gambino’s 3.15.20:
Suffice it to say, I’m disoriented. Musically, there’s just too much going on here to unpack it all on first listen. Spiritually, it has closer ties to the psychedelic maximalism of “Awaken My Love!” than anything else in Glover’s catalog, but it’s a departure from that, too. It’s futuristic, otherworldly, and in step with modern pop, sometimes all at once. Across its 12 songs, 3.15.20 consistently defies structure and dashes momentum in favor of choirs, breakdowns, instrumental flourishes, and sometimes, just noise.
On gut instinct, it strikes me as the type of album you need to sink your teeth into. It may unravel itself over multiple listens, unveiling pockets of accessibility among the avant-garde chaos, but for now, I have to admit to feeling underwhelmed. I miss the humanizing earworms and supple vocal tone evident in Glover’s earlier music as Childish Gambino. The music here is comparatively unfeeling. Instead of allowing you to appreciate how much he’s grown as an artist by letting the music speak for itself, every idiosyncratic choice he makes feels like he’s trying to hammer the point home with a boulder.
Still, I appreciate the ambitiousness of these compositions. Whereas there are moments during which you could justifiably accuse Glover of indulging himself a little too excessively, I admire his desire to sidestep stagnation at every conceivable turn to do a project that feels weighty. Even if I’m not entirely sure what it is yet, this project has a distinct worldview and a raison d’etre. It’s more than I can say for 85 percent of the albums released in 2020, so I’m excited to run it back and learn more.
Editor’s Note: We first reviewed this album on March 15, 2020, when it existed as a continuous stream on donaldgloverpresents.com. At the time of publishing, specific details about the album, like it’s official name and tracklisting, were presumptive. The stream was then pulled from the website, and the album was subsequently added to DSPs on March 23. 2020, under the name 03.15.20. We’ve updated this story to reflect the official tracklisting.