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Listen Up: Fresh approaches, memorializations to end the year

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Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino, performs on his Deep Web Tour at The Fillmore Theatre in Detroit March 2014 Credit: Courtesy of MCT

Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino, performs on his Deep Web Tour at The Fillmore Theatre in Detroit March 2014 Credit: Courtesy of MCT

The end of the year is usually a bad time for new music. That seems to be changing though, as artists are becoming less dependent on record labels for publicity. While labels used to hold off releases late in the year due to conflicts with award show season, those worries seem to have subsided. One of rap’s rising stars is releasing his third album in December, and it appears that it will cause the dropping of the “rap” part of his description.

“Redbone,” Childish Gambino

For a while it was easy to dismiss Donald Glover’s career as Childish Gambino, mostly because he seemed to have far more potential in a different avenue. Glover had proved himself to be a fantastic young comedy writer and performer, joining the writing staff of “30 Rock” at age 21 and shining on cult-hit “Community.” He balanced these successes with musical aspirations, making hip-hop under the stage name Childish Gambino, a name that originated in a Wu-Tang Clan naming generator.

Gambino made catchy rap through the perspective of a “black nerd” struggling with questions of identity. He found an audience, but whatever gains Glover made with the insights of identity crises were challenged by a deluge of punchlines that often felt unnecessary and tasteless (“I love pussy, I love bitches, dude, I should be runnin’ PETA,” “Made the beat then murdered it/ Casey Anthony,” he raps on “Bonfire”). He matured from his early releases, but his ambitious projects often came across as pretentious, especially so with his concept album “Because the Internet,” and its incomprehensible storyline.

But Gambino’s sound progressed, and 2014’s “Kauai” EP found him relying less on pun-filled lyrics and discovering a unique, electronic and sparse sound. This year, as Glover’s acting and producing career has found even more success in the wildly creative show “Atlanta,” his impulse to push boundaries is stretching into his music.

The two singles from the upcoming “Awaken, My Love!” have sounded nothing like previous Gambino, and nothing like rap. “Me and Your Mama” features Gambino singing over psychedelic space rock instrumentals that follow little structure. “Redbone” is soulful and funky, Gambino’s manipulated vocals at times hitting Curtis Mayfield-esque screams. Both new songs are surprising departures from anything else Gambino has made. They are forbearers of optimism for the new record, bringing hope that Gambino might put together a thoroughly listenable album.

Glover almost removes himself from the new releases — Childish Gambino sounds far less like a one-man show and much more like a band on these songs. The songs sound like a complete reinvention, and for the first time I can’t wait for more Childish Gambino music.  

“Awaken, My Love!” is set to be released on Dec. 2.

“Longer and Stronger” Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

Dammit, another one. So many music legends have been lost this year; Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg, Leonard Cohen. Last weekend Sharon Jones, a nouveau-soul singer who led the Dap-Kings for the past 14 years, died after a highly-publicized battle with cancer. She continued to perform and speak often about her illness after being diagnosed in 2012.

There is myriad of options for memorial listening, but her live performance with Prince in 2011, “100 Days, 100 Nights,” probably the group’s biggest hit. But with her death so fresh in the mind, “Longer and Stronger” is a soothing listen. Released before her diagnosis, the track is energetic and hopeful for the future. The horns keep the tempo upbeat, but Jone’s voice is still undeniably soulful. In the song, she pledges to live for 50 more years. Though her promise of longevity was not to be, the strength was there in her last five years. It is a song that does not point out the negativity, but offers motivation for when one encounters it.

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