At this point, Donald Glover could unveil his talent as a minimalist artist at a New York SOHO art gallery and no one would be shocked. This is what happens when you are a restless chameleon who has made waves as a stand-up comedian, sitcom actor, television writer and producer, rapper and now reborn funk crusader. There has been a lot said about Childish Gambino’s out-of-nowhere gamble Awaken, My Love!, a work that comes on the heels of the poly-talented daredevil’s highly acclaimed FX series Atlanta.
Amongst the high praise for the 11-song release, there have been critical jabs that Awaken carries the none too subtle, pungent aroma of a Parliament Funkadelic joint, right down to its album cover art (a definite shout-out to the legendary collective’s 1971 freak-out Maggot Brain). Of course, this is a good thing. When you have the great man himself George Clinton re-tweeting glowing reviews of Gambino’s musical gambit (“The Mothership has returned” boldly posted a longtime funkateer), you are definitely striking a nerve. But for those not ready to take the proverbial leap, here are nine albums to prepare you for the excellent sucker punch that is Awaken, My Love!. – Keith Murphy
The landmark debut from Clinton’s rag-tag Funkadelic outfit simmers, stews and bubbles over with freak flag freedom and a joyous, reckless abandon that had never been exhibited in R&B, much less pop music. Seemingly beamed down from another dimension way before the group’s 1975 Mothership Connection commercial peak, its musical imprint on Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! can be heard on such throwdowns as the take-‘em-to-church sing-along "I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody's Got a Thing" and the funked-up, poetic declaration “What Is Soul."
The most obvious Awaken, My Love! influence remains this definitive ‘70s funk-rock excursion. Gambino’s “Me and Your Mama” goes beyond a direct nod to Maggot Brain’s genius, 10 minute plus, LSD-enhanced title track, a genre-igniting cut anchored by the guitar-hero brilliance of late Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel. It’s an unapologetic tribute to the band’s undaunted musical bravery. If you can stop yourself from bouncing your head to the swampy band jam hijinks of “Hit It and Quit It” and “Super Stupid," you might as well call it a night.
It seems shocking today that Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On was met with some bewilderment upon its initial release. Gone was the sunny optimism of the group’s triumphant 1969 Woodstock stand. In its place was a much darker, political, insular and murkier statement fueled by Sly’s provocative social commentary and drug-drenched sessions, which still managed to go platinum, spawning the hypnotic No. 1 hit “Family Affair.”
Gambino’s own chaotic, angry (and at times indecipherable) “Riot” could have been a direct outtake while “Baby Boy” is the kissing cousin to Sly’s somber ghetto blues “Just Like a Baby." There’s a reason why everyone from the dearly missed Prince (1987’s Sign O’ The Times) to comeback kid D’Angelo (2014’s Black Messiah) have mirrored the complex funk of There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Uncut greatness.
If there’s any justice, criminally-slept on Detroit rockers Black Merda will one day take their place amongst other groundbreaking funk-rock pioneers of their era. On their second studio work, Long Burn the Fire, the band adventurously combine heavy guitar explosions, stripped-down R&B and the blues. The heartfelt results can be heard on songs like “Long Burn the Fire,” “I Got a Woman” and “We Made Up." Just call them the missing link between Funkadelic’s early ‘70s experimentations and Childish Gambino’s raw, modern day take on the Black weirdo experience.
The truth is the Ohio Players’ gold and platinum-selling consistency and straight ahead grooves at times placed them as the radio-friendly alternative to P-Funk. But the Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner-led Dayton, Ohio, crew understood the power of a throat-grabbing hook as evident on their sixth long-playing collection, the classic Fire. From its glorious, red-hot come-on title track to the strutting ballad “I Want to Be Free,” the Players were not afraid to engage in crowd-pleasing workouts. And still the unpredictable act was capable of pulling off wild curve pitches like “What the Hell,” a funk-rock-jazz shake-up that sounds like the guys were being possessed by the man downstairs.
This is the album that transformed the successful, soulful innovators into global, triple-platinum superstars. EW&F’s soul-stirring That’s the Way of the World was essentially spiritual hymns without the religious dogma. Credit should go to earnest visionary Maurice White, a peerless songwriter, musician, arranger and producer who never met an uplifting message he didn’t like as evident by the No. 1 pop and R&B anthem “Shining Star.” Surely Awaken, My Love! mines from the optimistic yearnings of EW&F’s sixth offering. Gambino’s soaring “Stand Tall” doesn’t stray too far from That’s the Way of the World’s glorious title composition or the smile-inducing “See the Light." Thank the Most High.
Bootsy Collins, one of music’s most celebrated bassists, went well beyond the laugh-inducing confines that at times punctuated the P-Funk member’s cartoon-like image. Indeed, while there’s plenty of eye-winking happening throughout the George Clinton co-produced Stretchin’ Out In Bootsy's Rubber Band, there’s a heaviness that allows for some serious business. It’s the same heavy funk that finds Gambino’s “Redbone” swimming in the same iconic bass-propelled waters as Bootsy’s stunning “I’d Rather Be With You.” If you are going to borrow a groove, it may as well be from the best.
Maybe Mother’s Finest was too damn eclectic for its own good. Throughout the 1970s, the defiant Atlanta, Georgia, troop found itself moving between obscure rebels and hit-making scene-stealers. Too rock for R&B stations and too black for the long-haired, Lynyrd Skynyrd-worshipping set, Mother’s Finest presented their ambitious, genre-hopping sound on their sophomore set. In their world, they could be provocative (“Niggizz Can’t Sang Rock & Roll”) and deliver the soulful funk bliss of Rufus featuring Chaka Khan (“Give You All the Love (Inside of Me)”). What a wonderful world, indeed.
As the high priestess of neo-soul, Erykah Badu could have just as easily turned in part two of her ubiquitous, hands-on-the-hip 1997 single “Tyrone” for her second set Mama’s Gun. Instead, like Childish Gambino, the unconstrained Dallas, Texas, native unveiled an equal parts militant socially conscious lane-change and relationship-driven testimony that often times sidestepped usual follow-up tropes.
From the opening track, the two-fisted funk-rock of "Penitentiary Philosophy" and the saucy “Booty” to the epic 10-minute-and-4-second torch song trilogy “Green Eyes," Mama’s Gun represents a fearless artist reveling in breaking the formulaic chains of standard R&B conventions. Salute.
(Photo: Michael Tran/FilmMagic)