REVIEW: Childish Gambino’s 3.15.20 is a sprawling example of anti-genre

       Childish Gambino does a little bit of everything on his best album yet: 3.15.20. By drawing clear influence from the likes of Frank Ocean, Prince, Kanye West, Toro y Moi, and Andre 3000, Gambino creates an eclectic and sprawling work that’s been a decade in the making. On 3.15.20, Donald Glover shifts the paradigm of what anti-genre entails in contemporary music – but his newest experiment doesn’t come without a catch.

       Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino project was never going to begin and end as a rap alias. Glover hinted at big ideas on Camp and Because the Internet, but never quite fully realized them. Awaken My Love!, was a psychedelic funk experiment that was well-received, most notably for being home to the best song of his career: Redbone. 

       After temporarily streaming his new album on his donaldgloverpresents website on March 15th, he officially released 3.15.20 on March 22nd. With a minimalist design that contrasts the album’s ambitious scope, the album cover is a plain, blinding white, and all but two tracks are named after their timestamp. With no imagery or song titles to serve as introductions, listeners are all but stripped of any preconceived notions for what to associate with the album’s musical contents. 

        One of the most intriguing ways to explore this album is through its influences. On 12:38, Gambino’s rapping about a psilocybin trip sounds like a blend of Andre 300 and Smino. On 24:19, which is essentially the Redbone sequel, and the best song on the album, Gambino’s vocals are strongly reminiscent of Frank Ocean or Prince. At the end of the song, it reaches its climax as gospel elements are introduced – a nod to Kanye West and Chance the Rapper who have made the intersection of gospel and hip hop core to their recent music. DJ Dahi handles the majority of production for the album, showing off impressive range, with highlights such as 19:10 that would sound at home on a Toro y Moi or Kaytranada dj set. Even the album’s aesthetic – the pain cover and timestamps for song names – follows basically the same format of Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered. Sometimes tucked away and other times glaringly obvious, Gambino’s ability to incorporate and riff on the sounds of his musical inspirations ends up being the highlight of 3.15.20. 

       If you weren’t familiar with Gambino’s wide range of vocal talent, you’d think a collective of artists (something like a Brockhampton) had put these songs together rather than one guy. Gambino’s background in writing and acting has never translated to music like it does here, as he crafts each song as its own vignette, bound to the laws of its own universe, regardless of what exists before it or after it. The characters, culture, and setting change fluidly from song to song. Characters even often interact within songs, like on 53.49, where a godlike figure interrupts Gambino’s aggressive rapping persona with the reassuring words “there is love in every moment, under the sun.” Moments like these feel more like urgent dialogues than complementary verses and choruses.  Between the revolving door of characters, the grand movie score-like instrumentation, and occasionally overwhelming differentiation from track to track, the songs play out less like scenes from a movie and more like a montage of short films. 

       So then, what’s the catch? The challenge with an album as eclectic as 3.15.20 is that it can become too amorphous for repeated listening. It draws you in at first, piquing interest with ambitious ideas, diverse musical styles, and a cinematic structure. After listening through it though, how much lasting appeal does something so eclectic have beyond acquaintance? When an album includes a thunderous instrumental, a country/r&b experiment, a song with hyperactive raps, a song with Ariana Grande, and everything in between – what future mood or setting would motivate you to press play from track 1 to 12 on 3.15.20?

       This isn’t suggesting that all albums characterized by ambition, eclecticism, and innovation are set up to fail. But when no two songs are alike in genre, mood, or sound, it does require a different level of engagement from the listener. It requires active participation in order to follow and appreciate the ebbs and flows. And since not everybody is always up for giving music their undivided attention, or for bouncing between moods and energies so frequently, it makes it especially hard for anti-genre albums to have lasting appeal. The stakes become a lot higher.

       Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was the most ambitious and eclectic (and arguably best) rap album of the last decade. It took 129 minutes, impeccable attention to detail, and a scholastic dedication to rap for Lamar to finally put together his magnum opus. Listeners keep going back to the album because it is a bona fide contemporary classic album. Similarly to 3.15.20, TPAB is not readily accessible – it’s not background music nor does the album as a whole satisfy a particular environment. It needs to be freshly embraced each time it is listened to. That’s not a small ask of your audience. An anti-genre album, usually characteristically complex and diverse, needs to be transcendent to endure. Time will tell whether people find 3.15.20’s musical narrative compelling enough to return to repeatedly.