Photo via dazedigital.com

4 Stars

Music fans were met with a surprise drop from the multi-faceted Childish Gambino last week. His new project “3.15.20” has been a few years in the making and the result is a record shrouded in mystery. The album cover is blank and only two tracks have real titles, while all the rest have timestamps for names corresponding with where they appear on the album, and the whole thing feels like an amalgamation of the artist’s work to this point.

From a presentation point of view, “3.15.20” is most reminiscent of Gambino’s sophomore output “Because, The Internet” with its distorted cover, numbered song titles and the computer-distortion of the production, which also reminds me of Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer.” Childish Gambino considers himself “internet famous” and has explored the meaning of that in his work over the years. This album dropping when it did is particularly interesting because Gambino uses the internet as a medium to connect people to each other with his music, which is nothing if not commendable.

While the presentation and production are reminiscent of “Because, the Internet,” the songwriting and vocal performances have the most in common with his last studio album, 2017’s “awaken, my love,” which saw the artist experimenting with soul and international sounds. It was a revelation for music listeners at the time because, while those genres had existed prior to that album’s release, he brought it into the mainstream and gave people new perspectives on the music they were listening to, leading to their own musical discoveries. On “3.15.20,” he continues to flex his singing voice and maintains his personal approach to music-making. By rolling everything he’s learned into one project, he sounds the most comfortable he ever has over the duration of a full album.

One of the album’s greatest strengths may also be a turn off to some. It is meant to be listened to from beginning to end. Most of the songs segue into each other, almost none of the songs have real titles which will make it hard to pick out specific songs you like and it follows an arch. Once you get to the “30” section of songs, the album hits its climax with awesome techno-basslines, monstrous vocals and a feeling like you’re journeying into a void. Then, just like that, you’re hit with chirping birds and the most upbeat song on the track. It is deliberately deceptive though, with lyrics about institutionalized racism creating an interesting juxtaposition. The song, “35.31,” feels the most like a companion piece to “This is America,” the artist’s highly acclaimed 2018 single.

Easily the most disappointing thing about the album is track “42.26,” which is actually just his song “Feels like Summer” under a new title. That song came out two years ago and was even packaged in a mini EP. It still stands as one of the artist’s most drawn-out songs and it feels ironic for an album so themed around the importance of time to waste a full five minutes of its 57-minute run-time on something so disconnected from the rest of the album. Luckily, the last two tracks make up for it and you can just skip over it all the same.

Overall, “3.15.20” is very good. On the first listen it comes off a bit strange, but it’s worth winding back and reevaluating. With this, Childish Gambino’s discography becomes even more unique. His form really comes together on this album — it’s his styles convening while being more understated than anything he’s ever done. The album features three mainstream powerhouses in Ariana Grande, 21 Savage and SZA, whose features help to ground the album. The album’s time stamp titles and blank cover are just two of the many elements that grab your attention at key times even if some of the attention-grabbing elements are negative. Overall, it’s worth listening to a few times.