What’s Donald Glover worried about right now? Well, what do you got?
On his fourth studio album as Childish Gambino, the singer-rapper-songwriter-producer-comedian-actor — count on the guy for pretty much everything but tweeting — vividly conveys his anxieties regarding racism, aging, mass incarceration, climate change, parenthood and how people can’t walk down the street without tripping anymore because they’re always staring at their phones.
Indeed, the only thing he doesn’t seem freaked out by on “3.15.20” is the global health crisis that erupted after the record was completed, though even that seemed to play into its rollout: Two Sunday mornings ago, on the date indicated in the album’s title, Glover’s new music appeared without warning as a looped stream on the website DonaldGloverPresents.com; hours later, after fans hailed the 12-song collection as a welcome distraction from the coronavirus, it disappeared just as quickly — one more mystery in an age of escalating uncertainty.
The jitters on “3.15.20,” now available on streaming services and in its entirety on YouTube, share some unsettled air with “This Is America,” Childish Gambino’s Grammy-winning 2018 single about gun violence and the commodification of black suffering. (A No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 thanks mostly to its YouTube views, the song is still best experienced in the form of its brutal and meticulous music video, which was directed by Hiro Murai, one of Glover’s primary creative partners on the brilliant FX series “Atlanta.”)
Yet this project, which Glover, 36, has suggested will be his last under the Childish Gambino name, also feels like a breakthrough — his first album that does more than merely honor his various inspirations. Early on those included Drake and Kanye West, whose melodic hip-hop sound he borrowed for proudly nerdy pop-rap tunes like “3005”; later, as heard in 2016’s “Redbone,” he turned to the grimy ’70s funk of Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic.
That’s not to say you can’t easily spot the singer’s lodestars on “3.15.20,” which carries serious Prince and Stevie Wonder vibes and can still evoke Kanye now and again. But just in time for him to retire this guise, Glover has finally figured out how to make music that puts across his specific viewpoint as a funny, thoughtful, self-aware family man with a gnawing sense of unease about what kind of world his two young sons will inherit.
Following a queasy-trippy introduction of stacked harmony vocals, the album opens with the twitchy “Algorhythm,” in which Glover describes the limitations of an online existence — “So very scary, so binary, zero or one / Like or dislike, coal-mine canary” — over a throbbing digital groove that seems to speed up as it moves. (You can forgive the pun in the song’s title since it really does conjure a feeling of man vs. machine.) “Time,” with typically ornate guest vocals from Ariana Grande, is an icy electro-pop tune about how the only thing more sure than the end is that we won’t be ready for it when it comes.
In “19.10” — the remaining songs are titled after the point at which they begin in the album’s 57-minute runtime — Glover remembers being prepared by his father, who died in late 2018, for the heavy reality of black excellence: “To be beautiful is to be hunted,” he sings in a voice streaked with both pain and pride. “32.22” layers Glover’s chanting vocals, processed nearly beyond recognition, atop tribal drums that recall his longtime producer Ludwig Göransson’s score for “Black Panther.” (In addition to Göransson, Glover’s studio collaborators here include DJ Dahi, Chukwudi Hodge and 21 Savage, who contributes a sly verse to “12.38” about eating Popeye’s chicken on a private plane.)
In “47.48,” which nods to the chattering, hand-played soul music of Wonder’s “Talking Book,” Glover uses an appearance by his son Legend to punctuate a touching homily on the importance of self-love at a moment of fear and distrust. And despite all the darkness the singer alludes to, that soothing quality is actually what ends up defining “3.15.20.”
There’s something oddly reassuring about these songs — not just “12.38,” a laidback R&B slow jam about a drug-addled sexual encounter, or the sweetly romantic “24.19,” but all 12 of them, even those in which Glover sounds close to overwhelmed by his many misgivings.
Maybe it’s his strong melodies; maybe it’s the instrumental textures that invite you to get lost for a while. Or maybe it’s the idea that somebody else is scared too.