The reclusive Donald Glover surprised fans earlier this week with a brand-new project, dropped Beyonce-style in the middle-of-the-night and gone by noon the next day. While it technically didn’t have a “title” per se, fans have taken to calling it Donald Glover Presents, based on the website where it livestreamed for a few hours before being taken down. It reappeared on DSPs about a week later with the official title, 3.15.20, signifying the day it livestreamed, with the song’s titles revamped to reflect the times they appear on the album.
In typical Donald Glover fashion — post Awaken, My Love! anyway — Glover’s new album is an eclectic experiment that defies easy categorization. It’s not a “hip-hop” album anymore than it is a straight-up soul. funk, R&B, or rock album. Instead, it’s an amalgam of all those, borrowing and discarding elements of each at will and seemingly at random.
It doesn’t seem that there was an overall goal in collecting these 12 tracks together and releasing them in this way, other than because Glover could and because it seems to amuse him to defy expectations and the conventions of whichever medium he happens to be working in at any given moment. Glover is very much a product of Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo school of thinking: Throw it out and never bother to check what sticks.
We’ve seen glimpses of this over the past few years of Glover’s musical and artistic evolution. It started with “This Is America,” a rollicking neo-trap anthem whose latent political and social commentary was emphasized and enhanced — but never thoroughly explained — with its viral music video. Then, Glover decided to deconstruct the sneaker ad with a series of shorts that seemed to highlight his costar Mo’Nique’s comedic timing as much as the product itself.
There was Guava Island, a short film that functioned as much as an excuse to go on vacation with Rihanna as it did an extended music video for “This Is America” and the songs he’d released since then, “Summertime Magic” and “Feels Like Summer,” which is also included in his latest release. Then, of course, there’s Atlanta, which is neither sitcom nor soap opera and which is at times a surrealistic fever dream that somehow spills out into reality in odd and unexpected ways.
Donald doesn’t seem to much care about the retail potential of each of these projects: He does them because they seem like fun in the moment and he puts them out because it wouldn’t be as much fun to keep them to himself. To be fair, he probably also puts them out because promotion or no, they’ll attract enough attention and make him enough money that he can continue to ensconce himself in whatever bubble he lives in when not touring and keep working on whatever other artistic endeavors strike his fancy. The world’s going to sh*t — can you blame him?
Or maybe that’s why he released 3.15.20 in the first place. It’s a lighthearted collection whose only unifying element is a sense of uplift to each song. “35.31” sounds like the soundtrack of a colorful children’s movie, or maybe a PBS cartoon with edutainment and optimism as its core. Meanwhile, “47.48” evokes both Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me — addressed as a sort of hopeful letter to his son, with an adorable appearance from the addressee himself on the end as a kind of coda.
“53.49” opens with a punk-funk freakout and hits a sunny soulful groove. “Feels Like Summer” still feels like summer, while there are unexpected guest appearances from pop star Ariana Grande on the spacey, pinball bounce of “Time” and fellow Zone 6 native 21 Savage on the cavernous “12.38,” providing a gruff counterpoint to Glover’s freaky falsetto. “19.10” is a futuristic disco two-stepper and “24.98” absolutely drips with the influence of Prince at his “Purple Rain”-iest.
If nothing else, 3.15.20 is about Donald Glover flexing his musical muscles and again picking up and playing with the sonic tools of his inspirations as he did with Funkadelic and the Family Stone on Awaken, My Love! It’s almost like Donald’s ultimate goal in finally shaking off the last vestiges of the criticisms of that album, which complained of too much homage and not enough of his own sound, by pointing out that he doesn’t really have a sound anymore. He sounds like what he feels in the moment, whatever whim gets him into the studio to create. His sound is “free,” and if nothing else, that freedom should leave us excited for whatever comes next.
Update: This review has been edited to reflect the new album and song titles on the version of the album available for streaming.
3.15.20 is out now on mcDJ and RCA Records. Get it here.