Monday night, as I walked to the Ram’s Head Live concert venue, I had no idea what to expect. Earlier in the year Daniel had retweeted some strange, witty tweets from some dude named Childish Gambino. Based on the name I thought it was some weird Italian joke tweet account. Then, a few months later, I joined tumblr after seeing Dan’s tumblr posts on his blog’s sidebar and determining there was some neat stuff going on there. That’s when I came across the site Hipster Childish Gambino and saw posts like these:
So I went to his website and he had just come out with an EP which he was making available for free on the web. I’ve spoken about this countless times, but most artists barely make any money from their music. They make their money from their merch and concerts. Well, Childish Gambino was the perfect example. His music was so awesome that when I looked on last.fm and saw that he was coming to town, I bought tickets. I can’t recommend the music to everyone because it’s quite vulgar. While he’s extremely lyrically gifted, his music seems to be a mix of bravado and vulgarity to separate himself from his television personality. (Kinda like Bob Sagat post-Full House) Not that he doesn’t have profound lyrics. One that always gets me every time I hear it is “I want to pick up the phone, ask my dad how to handle it, but what will happen when my dad’s not there to answer it.” But next to lyrics like “Fuck a bitch to pass the time”, I just can’t recommend it to too many people. In fact, his lyrics often sound like a series of awesome-sounding tweets or haikus, each awesome on its own, but with tenuous links to each other. I’m extremely curious to see where he goes from here. If there’s a theme to the EP it’s his fight for acceptance in the rap community. Going forward I think he either gains that acceptance or owns his niche and moves forward. Anyway, I’d like to see him tackle some different subjects.
As the concert approached, I found out it would be split between his standup as Donald Glover and his musical performance as Childish Gambino. I figured his standup would lean heavily on inside jokes for fans of Community, on which he appears. I decided it’d be worth weathering that half of the show to see him perform live. I’ve been listening to his music a lot with 36 plays logged on last.fm and a ton more listens at work and in the car. On the way to the concert I did my usual ritual of listening to the artists’ music to have the lyrics fresh in my mind. Surprisingly, the show started exactly on time. I’ve been to a fair amount of concerts and comedy shows and they usually start late. On top of that, they usually have an opener. Not Donald Glover – at least not in Baltimore. And that’s great because I usually hate hearing some no-name band.
Donald Glover started off with his standup routine. I don’t want to give away any of the jokes for any of the future tour stops. (Also, I don’t remember then well enough to do them proper justice) The important things to know are that it was very funny, had little to do with community outside of a joke or two, and was a multimedia tour. Donald is a geek and it shows – in a good way. He then transitioned to the music portion of the show.
Before the show started I’d noticed a bunch of instruments on the stage and pointed out to Dan that Childish Gambino might be one of those rappers who travels with a live band rather than a beat track. Dan was skeptical and posited it was the house set of instruments. Thankfully, Dan turned out to be wrong. Childish Gambino is one of those rare rap groups that actually sounds better live. I’ve been to rap concerts and I’ve heard them on SNL – 90% of the time, they SUCK. Rap has evolved since the 1980s to be so over-processed that it sounds like excrement when performed live. But Childish Gambino has at least one ace up his sleeve – he can actually sing! Unlike rappers who try horribly to sing or, worse, lean on the Auto-Tune crutch, Childish Gambino can hit the notes. I don’t think he’s as vocally talented as Cee-Lo, but he’s certainly in the same league. I could see Donald Glover having a third musical prong (in addition to MC DJ and Childish Gambino) where he sings like John Legend. He had four musicians on stage with him. On the left was a guy playing the keyboard, guitar, and some special effects/backing tracks of an apple laptop. The drummer was amazing. I’ll admit I haven’t experienced performances by the most gifted drummers, but this guy really blew me away – especially during his drum solo at the band introduction at the end. Next to him was another guy who played the guitar and steel garbage can, Stomp-style. Finally, there was a guy playing the violin and another set of drums. These instruments combined with Gambino’s style to produce a vibe that was closer to a rock concert than any rap concert I’ve ever witnessed. In the midst of some of the more intense songs, the violinist was playing the violin jumping around like he was thrashing an electric guitar.
Childish performed for an impressive ~1.5 hours. In fact, together with the standup, the entire show was nearly 2 hours long! His set (including the encore) included all the songs from his 2011 EP, the song Break, and some songs from Sick Boi and I am Just a Rapper. His lyrical style, as I mentioned above, made for an great call and response with the crowd where we essentially got to yell out the punchline to his incredibly clever lyrics.
Overall, Donald Glover has great stage presence. While telling his jokes and while rapping, he made sure to address everyone, even climbing on the amps to do so. I’ve seen too many artists and comedians just look out at the center for 80% or more of the show. But Glover made sure that everyone got his attention. The show was amazing and if he’s coming to your town you should definitely go out to see him. If you haven’t heard his music, he has it all available for free on the web. Get it, listen, and attend his show. I left the show feeling pumped. I could have gone for another hour if he’d continued rapping.