Donald Glover's Childish Gambino Makes a Case for Hip-Hop Relevance

At New York show, the comic actor shows he takes his rap career seriously

childish gambino donald glover
Anna Webber/FilmMagic
Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, onstage
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During DJ SOSUPERSAM's opening set at New York City's Terminal 5 last night, Kanye West's "Get ‘Em High" elicited a visceral crowd reaction. It made sense. Despite his Lil Wayne flow and Drake inflections, Donald Glover, who raps as Childish Gambino, is closest in lineage to College Dropout-era West: he boasts an Everyman appeal built on witty, biting humor, a prideful disdain for hip-hop clichés and some incendiary prodding of racial typecasts, post-Obama and post-Chappelle's Show. In Childish Gambino's world, race is sometimes the topic, but always the punchline. On this night, the actor/rapper toyed masterfully with the hot-button issue, and along the way he put on a great hip-hop concert.

Backed by a live band that included a violinist, Glover performed fervently from start to finish for a sold-out crowd of frat-boy devotees, scenester girls and industry skeptics. Crowdsurfing began within moments of Glover launching into "Hero," one of the many cuts he would perform from his various mixtapes and his upcoming debut, Camp (in stores November 15th). Glover is a comedian at heart, and his punchlines hit with the crisp timing of a seasoned performer. "I wish we never fucked, and I mean that," he shouted during the climax of Camp's "Heartbeat," pausing before nailing the rimshot: "But not really – you say the nastiest shit in bed and it's fucking awesome." Viral hits like "Freaks and Geeks" and a Jamie xx-produced remix of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" satiated the raucous crowd, who shouted back nearly every lyric during a 12-song set.

Glover clearly yearns for recognition as a technical rapper, and he was notably deft with rapid-fire lyrical exercises such as "You See Me," during which projected lyrics helped the crowd keep pace. On more somber numbers like "My Shine," Glover's pleas for respect sometimes felt off-putting, and even misplaced: "Why nobody want to admit they like me, just a little bit?" he rapped to a packed hall of adorers. This self-deprecation is the context from which he draws much of his art – he raps about being called a "faggot" and getting dumped by girls. But these bits floundered next to more bombastic numbers.

Still, there were few lulls during the nearly two-hour performance, and Glover's control over the audience never wavered. "I just found out backstage that Camp got four out of five mics in the Source magazine," Glover swelled from the stage while holding the first physical copy of his debut. "So I'm going to do a new song for all the motherfuckers who told me I couldn't be a rapper." He then performed "Backpackers," a scathing cut from the album that narrates his internal conflict about his own act and career. "That well-spoken token who ain't been heard/The only white rapper that's allowed to say the N-word," he spouted from the stage, disregarding the hundreds of white patrons who shouted the epithet along with him throughout the night.

The crowd fell mostly silent as Glover inched near the inevitable question that has defined many a black comedian's career – whether fans were laughing with him for mocking racial tropes (sample puns: "Brand-new whip for these niggas like slavery," "Eating Oreos like these white girls that blow me"), or simply laughing at other races. "Fuck you, backpackers," he hissed with notable menace. After a brief moment of tension, a Grizzly Bear sample dropped, the audience cheered, and all was well again.

Glover displays a deep understanding of performance art, and his material gains sizeable context onstage. He's at home in front of the crowd, if not in the booth. After a three-song encore that included a roaring rendition of his latest single, "Bonfire," a shirtless Glover profusely thanked his band and sound crew before addressing the crowd. "I seriously fucking love each and every one of you guys," he professed with the polish of a veteran. As he walked offstage, Glover triumphantly held a copy of his debut album over his head, without the slightest grin. For an instant, it was clear just how serious the comedian could be.

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Video: Donald Glover vs. Childish Gambino