Star Wars fans everywhere let out a collective whoop when Disney announced Donald Glover would be playing a younger version of Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo film. His outsize charm and sly wit makes him a seemingly perfect fit for the galaxy's boldest gambler. But if you want to take your excitement about Glover becoming a space hustler to the next level, you need to listen to his recent retro-funk album.
I've been listening to Awaken, My Love! with alarming frequency since it came out late last year. It stunned me with the way it perfectly harkens back to the psychedelic funk/soul of the 1970s, sounding eerily like lost tapes from Parliament/Funkadelic sessions. Musically, the album marked an abrupt break with the snarky, self-conscious rap Glover has done previously under the name of Childish Gambino. That earlier music was conceptually tethered to the present but Awaken, My Love! stretches back to past song-forms. I shouldn't have been surprised by the change-up because Donald Glover has always surprised me.
My relationship with Glover's creative output over the years has been elliptical. His sketch comedy work on YouTube flew under my radar until my first brush with his work on Community and, likewise, I only found out that he wrote for 30 Rock after I'd seen him play Troy Barnes. Early on, I did the disservice of comparing Glover to Dave Chappelle and wrote him off as the sort of comedian that non-black people liked to like because doing so made them feel cooler. But, the emotionally raw notes he posted to Instagram after leaving Community made me concerned for him and I wondered at what was churning inside of him. Those notes reminded me of Chappelle's unexpected exit from Comedy Central, spurred in part by the turmoil generated by the tension of not knowing for sure why people are laughing at a black performer.
Glover got real quiet on the TV front after Community, a silence that ended when his FX series Atlanta debuted last year. The show became a hit, thanks to its undercurrent of sardonic everyday absurdism. Each episode feels like a miniature work of comedy genius, animated by tiny mechanisms that you can't see and it felt like Glover was finally showing the "who I really am" mentioned in those Instagram notes. Atlanta won me over big time last summer and the December release of Awaken, My Love! put Glover on a list of creators I'd never dare ignore.
Awaken, My Love! feels like it's also channeling that "who I really am" energy but from a different vector. What amazed me the most about the album on first listen was how spot-on it sounded as something trying to pay homage to a pop-music idiom from yesteryear. When I talked about it with friends of the same age, I mused that we were the last generation to hear a new Marvin Gaye song debut on the radio. We heard the last drumbeats of funk and disco at school dances before rap took dominance. Yet Glover is able to capture that same soul-music feeling without having experienced it firsthand in its original temporal context. But, most importantly, this music isn't just a set of uncanny George Clinton or Teddy Pendergrass impressions.
What Glover and his musical cohorts are accomplishing on Awaken, My Love! is multivalent, blending mimicry, recontextualization and connecting the past to the present. Take a song like "Have Some Love", the second track on the album. It's one of the tunes that harbours a heavy Sly and the Family Stone influence — along with strains of Funkadelic — in how it centres the importance of black folks being there for each other. That theme was common in the 1960s and 1970s when agitation for voting rights and public school desegregation brought black people into conflict with police and fellow citizens. The times and laws of the land have changed but "Have Some Love" recognises the need for communal self-love in a system historically designed to delegitimize black lives is as urgent as ever.
Another song called "Zombies" sounds like kitsch at first, with its languid opening rhythms and heavily affected vocals. But it quickly becomes clear that the song's a sort of semi-autobiographical showbiz fable, which imagines people being stalked by not-alive entities who want to siphon their vital energies. Several other songs like "Boogieman" and "Riot" also tap into the socially aware dance music vein.
What does all of this have to do with Star Wars? Listening to Awaken, My Love! made me realise that Glover could do the same thing — mimic, recontextualize and personalise — with the role of Lando Calrissian. When actors take on roles that have been originated by others, they can choose to study what came before or not. Either choice is valid. But, with Awaken's mojo in my ears, now I feel like there's no way Glover couldn't have met with Billy Dee Williams months ago. His process, at least as I envision it, demands a visit to the reservoir of cool whence Lando sprang. People's expectations will likely be that Glover will work in some Billy Dee into his version of Lando but he's also got to make the role his own. His approach to 1970s psychedelic funk — which was on the airwaves of black radio stations when Star Wars was coming out — presents a strong case that he can do exactly that.
It's equally important to note the strain of Afrofuturism in the core metaphor of "Zombies." If you're going to play Lando Calrissian, getting into an Afrofuturist mindset — which imagines how black people live in speculative fiction — feels like a valuable mental exercise. Remember, Lando's a guy on the fringes of an oppressive power structure — someone who gets by however he can, even if those methods induce some self-loathing. It's not hard to picture Lando Calrissian singing some of the lyrics on this album, like this from "Zombies"...
We're coming out to get you
We're all so glad we met you
We're eating you for profit
There is no way to stop it
You will find there is no safe place to hide, hide
(That's right, that's right)
or these lines from "Terrified"...
There's a bottom to the top of a moment
You won't always be around
Catch a nigga coming quickly behind you
People want you underground
Do you misbehave?
Haunt you to your grave
I'm going to eat you alive
The yowls and yelps tucked into and under Awaken, My Love!'s verses and instrumental solos are fun throwback touches but also testify to Glover's uncanny ability to inhabit retro poses with modern sensibilities. His sartorial presentation in public appearances also serves as signifiers to his creative method.
Look at his performance of "Redbone," and dig on how his shirtless torso, bare feet, and glittery pants immediately evoke the idea of an old-school soul singer. Peep the chocolate brown velvet tux he wore to the Golden Globes, which may as well have been straight out of the '70s. The Day-Glo stagewear he's got on in this concert performance of "Me and Your Mama" calls back to the anything-goes scifi outfits of Parliament/Funkadelic.
It might have all been subconscious coincidence but Donald Glover's been getting ready to be Lando for a long damn time. All the work he's been doing in the last few years suggests that he's going to be the baddest hustler the galaxy's ever seen.