If you bought a ticket to Childish Gambino’s tour you might have been surprised when he said it was his last, given that this time last year, most people didn’t know who he was. The rapper alias of Donald Glover – son of a postal worker and nursery nurse, raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in Georgia – has in fact been hanging around for years: the first mention I uncovered, just now in my inbox, is an email sent on Remembrance Day 2011: “a growing reputation as one of the freshest MCs in hip hop”. Back then I found the name – which I didn’t realise was deliberately funny, created by an online Wu-Tang rap name generator – annoying: it melded together with the Canadian piano player Chilly Gonzales in my mind, so I never clicked on the links. It was not the first time that kind of prejudice has denied me an experience of perfectly good music.
In May 2018, Gambino’s video “This Is America” – a brutal but intricate commentary on US gun laws and race relations, considered one of the most important pieces of musical protest art in years – generated more than 12 million YouTube views in 24 hours (it has now had 500 million). The same day “This Is America” came out, a New Yorker profile was published focusing on the comedy drama, Atlanta, he’d written, directed and starred in. Overnight, he went from an interesting guy with many projects who had not yet dominated one field to a formidable renaissance man who didn’t need to do interviews any more. “I think if a lot of things had death clauses in them, we wouldn’t have a lot of problems in the world, to be honest,” said Gambino, of his decision to dissolve himself. “Endings are good because they force things to get better.” But there was still a tour to be had.
To celebrate the shedding of the skin, and to let some air in on the emerging “concept”, there is an unusual kind of “all in this together” atmosphere on the O2 stage: a touching admission, early on, as he looks out over 15,000, that “I never thought this would happen” – which I’m sure he didn’t. He opens the show spotlit, frozen and contorted on the runway – naked torso, head down, bit of a belly, ill-fitting white linen trousers like the Civil War-era pants he wore in “This Is America” – just one of the blink-and-you-miss-it synecdoches of protest his act is steeped in.
The beard is bleached blonde at the mo which, together with the signature eye-roll, makes him look more like Catweazle or Robinson Crusoe than his 34 years should allow. The physical tics and twists that were there in the famous video are here too – a fragmentary recreation of the grotesque Jim Crow cartoons, thrown together with bits of African Gwara Gwara and Neza dancing. A kind of crazy running motion that bears a passing resemblance to Rufus Thomas’s Funky Chicken is offset with a quick, lazy drag on the crotch – I’d like to think he’s bemoaning the slow death of dancing in rap (there used to be so much).
Glover isn’t a fantastic dancer, or an amazing singer, or a genius songwriter with much of an ear for hits. But he’s an ideas man (and they are big ideas) in an era when artists are made by ideas – viral videos, visual albums – rather than hooks and choruses. Somehow, the gig plays out with the same surreal feel as his TV series – a thousand creative concepts fizzing in fits and starts: a tribute to hair metal with a short solo by guitarist Ray Suen on a flying V; a hidden choir, somewhere under or behind the stage, singing powerful gospel one minute, then lisping like Tellytubbies the next. There are sequences given over to laughs – he leaves the stage prematurely and is broadcast from backstage taking a slug of water and shaking his head as if to say: not going back out there.
At one point, too, he is lost in the audience, weaving through the venue. That’s not usually a good look in the O2 – Taylor Swift once started a whole gig like this and it was so boring for the crowd, who couldn’t see her. But Gambino seems to be riffing on the superstar concept rather than doling out the rock ‘n’ roll communion: he is pursued by the steadiest Steadicam holder I’ve ever seen, running behind him, filming… but filming what, exactly? Because who, or what, are we really looking at here, when it comes down to it? A man who got on this stage because of a viral video. Who has already moved on to other things. Who’s got a part in the new Lion King film. He and the director of “This Is America”, Hiro Murai, have just made a movie with Rihanna too, which is interesting: she’s been intent on doing anything but music for a while.
Glover has the slickest of bands – as slick as Stevie Wonder or Quincy Jones. If he was planning to stay in this job I’d say: get them up on stage, instead of hiding them at the back, and interact with them, like Prince would. Because that’s probably the greatest influence tonight – not just in the soul-rock-funk-hybrid, but in the musical schizophrenia itself; in the sense of concepts being built up and knocked down, songs teased and truncated, as Prince did on the same stage in 2007. Glover, of course, is no Prince. More political, less weird. Far fewer tunes. But we are living in different times.
This article appears in the 03 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers