Childish Gambino Finds a New Community in Rap: Concert Review
Donald Glover's "rap" alter ego scores before an audience of devoted fans, justifying his decision to leave "Community" for a music career.
Last evening was not Donald Glover’s first time in L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium. As he concluded his sold-out headlining performance as Childish Gambino, the musician and actor recalled coming here previously. “I’ve been dreaming about this maybe for like 10 years,” Glover said. “I was in the audience for the Emmys a long time ago. Tina Fey said to me, ‘This is the biggest stage.’ And I was like, ‘I wanna play this stage one day.’”
That experience of attending the Emmys as a writer on 30 Rock was, presumably, before Glover created Childish Gambino as his musical alter ego, who has since released two albums. Glover is presently so dedicated to this project that he quit his role on Community to ensure he could properly tour his latest hip-hop effort, because the internet, which dropped last December. There has understandably been some critical uproar about Glover’s artistic preference, partially due to the fact that because the internet did not garner the most laudatory reviews. But based on the fan response last evening, Glover probably doesn’t need to worry about the critics.
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Childish Gambino’s current The Deep Web Tour features no real opening acts, only a DJ who spun various crowd pleasers like Nelly’s “Hot In Herre” and the theme song to The Fresh Prince. The audience was notably young, primarily composed of college-aged kids who skewed largely white. Snippets of songs by Jay Z and Kanye West elicited scarily aggressive fist-pumping and kids jumping up and down on the Shrine’s historic seats. The video screen onstage revealed a stream of audience tweets submitted via an official tour app. The sensibility of the evening was reflected through their choices of phrase: “I like turtles,” “childish gumbo,” “this DJ needs to stop being a little bitch,” “mrs glover hehe,” “hail hydra” (that last one appeared numerous times).
After the DJ left the stage, a deafening dial tone resonated through the room, leading into a series of beeps that used to connote connecting to AOL. The sound repeated and the audience grew more and more anxious. On the screen, old-school computer graphics revealed a loading bar. As Glover finally appeared, accompanied by a full band and a group of friends who sat onstage with red plastic cups of booze for most of the show, the audience, for lack of a better term, lost their shit. There was a sense of unabashed awe, a feverish clamor. One guy shrieked to his girlfriend, “There he is! He’s right there! Do you see him?” as if he’d happened upon Glover on the street corner.
From the first song, “Crawl,” because the internet’s second single, it was clear that Glover was mimicking the creation of his most recent album onstage. The disc, produced in part by Glover, was created last year in a rented mansion in Pacific Palisades, a process that the musician documented in a lengthy video he released prior to the album. The stage was crowded with instruments, couches, leather armchairs, lamps and even a decorative globe, all set before a backdrop projecting the image of an ornate mansion with massive windows and a burning fireplace. During that first number, at least 15 people, minus Glover, reclined on the stage or helmed various instruments. The musician, who has adamantly refused to call himself a rapper despite the fact that Childish Gambino’s music is distinctly of the hip-hop genre, bounded around out front clad in jean shorts and a white tee-shirt.
He railed through several recent numbers, including the aggressively raw “Sweatpants” and “The Worst Guys,” before which Glover said “this song is about sex” as silhouette images acted out a threesome on the stage’s backdrop. After he riffed through “The Party,” Glover began to pick up stride, his rhymes spitting out faster and with more confidence. The song ends with the line “Get the fuck out of my house,” a sentiment the singer directed at his buddies onstage, all of whom exited with their red cups. A screen dropped in front of the stage and the word “Reset” flashed, offering Glover the opportunity to shift the performance’s tone.
One of the reasons Glover claims not to be a rapper, particularly after the release of because the internet, is because he can – and does – sing. His track “Flight of the Navigator,” performed behind the screen with Glover’s face bathed in blue light, is a full-on ballad that allows for intimately wrought crooning rather than in-your-face rap verses. The emotive sensibility lingered for several songs, occasionally losing the audience’s attention, and at one point a poll appeared on the screen for the crowd to vote on in their tour app. “This is making me feel…” was posed, with answers like “Lost,” “Some type of way,” “[Wide Eyed Emoji]” and “Roscoe’s Wetsuit” (for the record, “Some type of way” won). Jhene Aiko emerged in a Kentucky Derby-appropriate hat to duet on “Pink Toes,” the only notable guest appearance of the evening.
It’s hard not to think of Drake when you hear rap conflated with emotionally driven melody, maybe because the Canadian rapper has best perfected the delicate balance between hip-hop’s visceral and often angry aggression and an introspective songwriting sensibility. As Childish Gambino, Glover is clearly apt at this balance, particularly on the single “3005,” which pairs a hook-laden sung melody with spitfire verses like “Got a house full of homies/Why I feel so the opposite?” As Glover bounded back and forth across the stage with enthusiasm that mirrored that of his fans, the projected mansion began to crumble and all of the video imagery that had played through the show rewound itself before vanishing into a black hole.
The encore, which was really the first of two, was lengthy, performed before a backdrop of a bonfire burning in a forest at night. The emotional gravity continued on “So Fly,” an evocative breakup number from Childish Gambino’s 2010 mixtape Culdesac, and “Bonfire,” a standout from his 2011 debut album Camp. At one point, caught in the momentum of the show, Glover hollered “I’m losing my voice but I’m gonna spit this shit like it’s my fucking life.”
The second encore, during which Glover recounted the story about attending the Emmys with Tina Fey, featured a freestyle rap in front of a black backdrop, all the production stripped away to refocus the attention on the musician himself. But, of course, it’s hard to believe Glover when he says he’s not a rapper and then concludes his performance with an impressive, lengthy freestyle that takes on subjects like the Clippers, doing mushrooms with girlfriends and his own career. “I wanted to be the biggest rapper outta LA,” Glover rapped, a sentiment he offered with legitimate sincerity.
That is likely an impossible feat, but perhaps Glover has achieved something more significant. His audience, especially compared to the fans that attend shows by Drake or West or other possible contemporaries to Childish Gambino’s off-center rap numbers, is dedicated to an overwhelming degree. They have followed his career both on- and off-screen with great intensity and are buying anything Childish Gambino is selling. There’s a good reason that most of the Deep Web Tour hits venues on college campuses this spring.
Several executives from the musician’s record label Glassnote Records, including owner Daniel Glass, watched the show from the crowd, but spent a majority of the performance gazing backward, as if trying to conceive of the forceful adoration these kids feel for Glover. As he recalled being in this room during the Emmys, Glover said, “I swear to God I was thinking ‘I gotta sell this shit out.” All these years later, it’s easy to hear how grateful and surprised he is to have actually done it.
Playing Around Before the Party
The Worst Guys
Death by Numbers
Flight of the Navigator
Transition #2 – Mother Voice
Telegraph Ave. (radio intro)
Do Ya Like
Got This Money
All the Shine
Freaks and Geeks