Childish Gambino, Live in Brixton
In the realm of pop culture journalism, one gimmick which can be horribly irritating or occasionally useful is the use of years as adjectives. ‘That’s so 2014’ implies that something could only have existed in 2014, usually because of how its colourful multiculturalism would be difficult to achieve without the internet, or more specifically the state of internet culture in 2014. Pop culture’s irrevocable change has inspired artists to bring in as many different textures and colours and influences into their work as possible, whilst resultantly challenging them to do this whilst still maintaining some kind of coherency. A balance between the two is hard to achieve, often resulting in awkward gaudiness, or blatant cultural tourism in a attempt to seem ‘hip’. So I suppose a truly ‘2014’ artist would be successful in using as many of the possibilities offered by the internet as possible, whilst just about managing to stop their career from looking like a glorified collage. By this criteria, I’m personally nominating Donald Glover (or Childish Gambino, his rap moniker) as the most 2014 artist on earth right now. Katy Perry and Taylor Swift may shove as much iconography and cultural references into their (admittedly very entertaining) music videos as a major label budget can afford, but no one is more of a multicultural human swiss army knife than this man.
Over the last year I have gobbled up his output like an enormous, colourful pop culture buffet (a bi-product of all my free time as a 1st year… why aren’t more Philosophy undergrads amateur journalists?) but instead of chronic indigestion it just left me hungry for new menu additions. There’s his starring role in the brilliant cult comedy show Community (I am aching to write an article about this show, but there are only so many synonyms for ‘good’ you can fit into one article. Just watch it), in which his skills as a hilarious visual performer are demonstrated. There’s his hilarious stand up show Weirdo (free to watch on youtube!), and his writing credits for another brilliant cult comedy, 30 Rock, which show that he really understands how to create hilarious material, as well as perform it; in Tina Fey’s biography she credits him as a crucial component of her writing team, despite being its youngest member. (full disclosure: I didn’t actually read the book, I listened to it as an audiobook. And you should too! It’s the strongest counter-argument to the notion of women not being funny that I’ve experienced).
Then there’s his rap career as Childish Gambino. It began with intensely nerdy, immature, hilarious rap freestyles peppered with tv references and sex jokes (‘E.E. cummin’ on her face, now that’s poetry in motion‘), before moving on to ridiculously heavily conceptual stuff; if you listen through his discography you can hear him maturing in sharp detail. Not unlike Tyler the Creator, Gambino holds the philosophy that just because you enjoy putting out extremely dumb humour, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also be taken seriously as an artist. So just how serious and conceptual did Gambino go? Some artists come up with a ‘concept’ for their albums, which connects the aesthetics together, or acts as a common theme for most of the lyrics [eg: Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, or Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid MAAD City]. Some take it further, and try to become part of the concept, making alter egos, allowing them to approach music at a different angle [eg: Plan B’s …Strickland Banks, or Beyonce’s I Am Sasha Fierce]. And then there’s the new Childish Gambino album, Because The Internet. Every single song, music video, blogpost, and live performance with Glover’s name on it has been part of an enormous narrative, ultimately summed up by a screenplay Glover wrote himself, which tells the album’s story. If anyone can be justified in saying that they want to make albums their fans can ‘live inside and inhabit’, it’s this guy.
Now finally we come to his actual gig, the swansong of all this work, the last performance of the Deep Web Tour. By this point this whole concept had nearly run its course, and Donald Glover was already gearing up for his next release, the brilliant mostly-sung Kauai ep Stone Mountain. (Side note: we bumped into James Blake before the gig in a Brixton cafe. Coincidence? Almost certainly. All I can say is that his eyes are more beautiful than sea after a storm) But for this one night, the brainchild of this fascinating man – Donald Glover that is – would be performed to five thousand people. The 2014-ness of the show was already blatant halfway through the support act. The audience used the Deep Webb app to send tweets and sketches onto the main screen, simulating the kind of hip hop. Admittedly, many of these were horrible comments about the support act’s appearance (Elli Ingram, check out her awesome cover of Kendrick Lamar’s Poetic Justice) which made me feel bad about humanity itself; but sadly this just showed that this was a successful representation of the internet; trolls are an unavoidable aspect of this. Fortunately, like internet trolls, the perpetrators of these messages were a minority; the majority of the messages were pleasant remarks about the singer, or jokes involving every internet meme or aspect of Donald Glover’s career you could think of (I let out a genuine fangirl squeal when I saw a ridiculously specific reference to one particular Community episode).
Then there’s the actual show. I’m not going to try and ‘review’ its relation to the Because The Internet plotline, because in all honesty I don’t reeeaaaally understand it, and I don’t think I’m alone in that amongst his fans. What I will review is Gambino’s power as a performer, which is phenomenal. Offstage, in his music videos, interviews, or even some of his verses he comes across as an understated, stoic character, the kind that many would brand as ‘douchey’ or pretentious. Onstage, he is positively effervescent, bounding around with the excitement of a kid at Christmas. The peaks of his power as a bracingly OTT rapper and a powerfully soulful singer were both underlined with the two best songs on BTI, Sweatpants and Telegraph Ave. The most exceptional thing I noticed about Gambino’s performance, was the continuation of his ability to underline his performance with the overt expressiveness he perfected as a comedian. For an example of what I’m talking about try watching his recent radio freestyle for Rosenberg; over the course of 93 bars he transforms from a sedated closed-eyed dude to an openly exasperated man with his feelings plain to see on his face. Once the main set was over and he’d performed all the hits I could think of, the lights went up, backing music came on, and I tugged at my mate to leave, insisting that the show was blatantly over (I’ve been to a lot of gigs and I could have sworn that the lights going up means that the show is over!). This made me look like a ginormous mug, because the show’s highlight was immediately after this when the lights went back down again, and Gambino came back onstage to do a spontaneous, end of the tour freestyle. It was a wonderful reminder of what makes him so special, with the vivacity of his energy tempered by witty one-liners, referencing everything from London to netflix original shows (‘I’m the new black, fuck oranges’).
The most impressive aspect of this show for me was that you would not guess for a single moment from it that Childish Gambino is considered by a large portion of music criticism’s zeitgeist to be an outlier whose past as a comedian and comical rapper precludes him being taken seriously as a ‘hip hop artist’ like his cohort Chance the Rapper, the awareness of which he demonstrated in the aforementioned freestyle with the lines
The best part is that they love Chance
But our fans are the same, you should fuck with your man
And I wonder what they’d say if that EP drop
“His verse was wack, his verse was hot”
To be frank, hip hop itself doesn’t seem aware of this; Gambino has freestyled with Kendrick Lamar, swapped beats with Drake and has as much love from online hip hop communities like Reddit’s r/hiphopheads as either of them. I have no idea what the next project Glover puts out will be, or how I’ll experience it: another free download mixtape, a script for a tv comedy or even an appearance in Community’s 6th season on Yahoo Screen. The mediums doesn’t matter, all that matters is the astonishingly talented man using them. What could be more 2014 than that?