It felt like part of Childish Gambino died last night. As his sturdy frame lumbered through golden LSD obelisks and beads of sweat pooled on his back as “Redbone” played, he had the bearing of an exhausted man leaving behind a husk he’d never return to collect.
At the outset of the first Madison Square Garden stop on the ‘This Is America’ Tour, Donald Glover let the audience know that this is “the last Childish Gambino tour ever.” And he made good on his big promise for the night: “This is not a concert, this is church.”
Bewildering, hypnotic and slightly horny, Gambino had all the markings of a sweaty Baptist preacher leading a congregation. A hallmark of the American black church is portraying the religious experience as intermittently euphoric, but profoundly trying. Life is suffering, but with enough singing, swaying and stomping, you might be granted a momentary reprieve. For a brief window on Friday night, Childish Gambino seemed like it represented a similar reprieve for Donald Glover. However, as he moved through his setlist it was evident how constricting the idea of Gambino and his discography has become. The success of the ‘This Is America’ Tour lies in how persuasive it is to a wide audience that Childish Gambino deserves to be killed off —and hinting that there might be something better to find once he’s gone.
As the show began, Gambino silently stood onstage in a single, intense beam from the spotlight. “As we stand together, promise me that we’ll teach the children that we must be free,” sang his unmistakable voice on a backing track. Suddenly, the stage exploded into the unreleased “Algorythm.” The song is about rivers, everybody wanting “to get jumped like Moses,” and moving your body. It’s a high concept idea — imagine The Jetsons trying to recreate Negro spirituals by pumping the Drive soundtrack into their veins.
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The dilemma Gambino faced as he transitioned from the opener into the show’s first act was juggling what the audience wanted from him and what he wanted to give the audience. Songs like “Worldstar” and “Worst Guys” — both from his 2013 concept album, Because the Internet — received the loudest and most devoted reactions. Both songs were engineered for pop consumption in the way that much of Awaken, My Love isn’t, relics from a bygone era in Childish Gambino’s artistic development. “Stand Tall” showed the range and strength of Gambino’s falsetto, and Glover seemed overjoyed dancing to “Boogieman,” but neither song is meant for stadium chants.
The emotional climax of the show happened halfway through. Gambino crouched and for a moment his religious zeal and magnetic energy dissipated, giving way to a more personal piece of reflection.
“I used to come to this place to see some of my favorite rap acts when I was going to NYU,” he said. “A lot of ‘em didn’t get to play stadiums this big. Y’all don’t remember these times, but rap it was like a small thing for a long time. Even when I was a kid people were like, ‘Yeah, that’s what kids do.’…Be yourself, cause dreams come true.”
As the show drew to its conclusion, “This Is America” and “3005” presented the contrasting ideas of Gambino’s present and past dreams — both had to be included on the setlist, despite their differences. “This Is America” is one of the most peculiar songs to go number one on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s a track that’s inextricably tied to the unapologetically black viral music video that birthed its success, but Gambino and the child dancers that accompanied him on stage did an admirable job translating its visceral emotion into a live setting. Seeing hundreds of black faces chant, “Get your money black man” with a sea of white people looking on in wonder was a striking experience. In contrast, the decidedly less radical “3005” summed up the palpable nostalgia in the stadium. It’s still a fan favorite, and stands as the clearest indication that Gambino had an entire pop album in him, before he abandoned it in favor of music that is more challenging to define.
Over the past decade, Childish Gambino has been a funny guy with bad raps, a better rapper with corny jokes, a good rapper with breathtaking concepts and a pop artist masquerading as a soul singer. Sometimes it worked, sometimes times it didn’t. In front of MSG, Gambino’s setlist wisely leaned on the ones that did, pulling tracks from Summer Pack, Awaken, My Love and Because the Internet, and sidestepping projects like Camp and Royalty.
The standout from the night was a new song. Fans on the internet are calling it “Spirits.” “I cannot explain the feeling, I’m alone / The loneliness,” sang Glover over a brooding, electronic beat. By the time the chorus exploded into the “We shine brighter in the dark” chorus it sounded like a revelation, a look at where Glover might decide to go next.
The ‘This Is America’ Tour served as a symbolic funeral. It’s a successful send-off for the Gambino moniker, and the hard-won development it represents, but not for Glover’s music career. “Spirits” alone was a glimmer of rebirth, and a welcome one. Donald Glover is still searching for himself as a musician, and made sure to provide a glimpse at what’s yet to come.
“I. The Worst Guys”
“Late Night in Kauai”
“Have Some Love”
“Feels Like Summer”
“This Is America”