If you google Childish Gambino or Donald Glover, you are guaranteed to see “Are Childish Gambino and Donald Glover the same person?” in the FAQ section. This hilarious inside joke among fans has begun to seem less like a joke and more of an ideological question in the past few years. Some of his most recent successes have been outside of the music realm: a bachelor’s from NYU in dramatic writing; two Emmys; a successful run in the sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy; two Writers Guild awards; two Golden Globes; an NAACP award for the FX show “Atlanta,” which he created and stars in; cameos in “Magic Mike XXL” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming”; roles as Lando Calrissian in “Solo: A Star Wars Story”; and an upcoming voice-acting role as Simba in a remake of “The Lion King.” All these on-screen appearances and awards are now reflected in his music. As of 2019, you can add Grammy winner to that list of accolades, as Gambino took home two Grammys for “Redbone” off of his 2016 album “Awaken, My Love!” and for his 2018 single, “This is America.”
This multifacetedness has earned Glover the title of “Renaissance Man” in many publications. He has carved his own path and excelled in all the different avenues he’s chosen—be it acting, writing, production, comedy, singing or songwriting.
Ever since I first heard his song “Bonfire” from 2011 album “Camp,” I was itching to see Childish Gambino live. I sat with that album for a whole summer, then spent a whole winter with his 2013 follow-up “Because the Internet.” Having listened to this album for years and praying to attend one of his concerts, I was ready to jump out of my skin. Upon the release of the eternal “Awaken, My Love!” and the announcement of his upcoming tour dates, I was ready with my credit card info to purchase a ticket and finally witness his greatness live. This is a retelling of how I went through what I can only describe as a sonic baptism, a visual confirmation and a spiritual transfiguration.
Saturday, September 15th, 2018: As I made my way up the stairs of Madison Square Garden for the first time ever, I could feel my anticipation growing. It began to set in that I was about to see my favorite artist, idol and inspiration perform on one of the most revered stages in the world. Passing through the security checkpoint, I looked around and saw people of different ethnicities, genders, ages and identities all wearing Childish Gambino merch. From t-shirts to hats to hoodies to bags, they had it all. I kicked myself for forgetting to bring any cash with me as I strolled past the merch lines. Nevertheless, I counted my blessings and pinched myself to make sure I was truly present.
Finally arriving at the last checkpoint, I was pointed in the direction of my section. I went up three flights of escalators and found the gate to Section 103. Waiting in the stands and taking in the ambiance of the arena I felt a sense of resolution. I even asked fellow concertgoers if we were really at a Childish Gambino concert. Opening act Rae Sremmurd finished their set with an energetic performance of “Black Beatles” before the lights dimmed and the stage went black.
Childish Gambino made his way onto the stage under a cloak of darkness. Then grandiose church organs sustained luscious chords as a single beam of white light shone down on him from above. He sang the line, “As we stand together, promise me that we’ll teach the children to be free.” A thumping kick drum and bassline emerged as towering strobe lights shot down from above the stage. These lights created a halo of light over Gambino, as if heaven itself was shining down upon him. The church organs continued their sustained chords as the background singers performed a four-part harmony that haunted the soul and lifted the spirit all at once.
His athletic frame gyrated, danced, church-stepped and glided across the stage as he performed the as-yet-unreleased song “Algorhythm.” His white linen pants gave him the appearance of someone about to be baptized. In a song about rivers and everybody wanting “to get jumped like Moses,” this was only fitting, and established a theme of rebirth. Ending the song with a call and response with the audience, he made the stadium feel more like a Baptist church.
Before he began this performance, he announced to the audience that this would be “the last Childish Gambino tour ever.” This proclamation was a perfect preface to the kaleidoscope of lights, sound, praise-dances and screams that would comprise the religious experience he told us we were now a part of. In his own words, “this is not a concert, this is church.”
Gambino continued with a performance of the song “Summertime Magic” off his “Summer Pack” release that also includes “Feels Like Summer.” The former sounds like a typical summertime jam, with steel drum percussion and a driving bassline. The latter has a very Marvin Gaye-esque sound with socially conscious lyrics over a cascade of percussion, background vocals and a consistent chord progression played on acoustic guitar. These two songs bear more of a sonic resemblance to “Algorhythm” than the other tracks he performed from “Because the Internet.” There was a seeming conflict between what Gambino wanted to perform and what the audience wanted to hear. This contradiction bears resemblance to his departure from “Because the Internet” to “Awaken, My Love!,” which caught some fans off guard as they expected a rapping Gambino — not this soul- and funk-infused monolith before them. The apparent schism split Gambino into two different identities as he belted out shrill screams and soaring falsetto riffs, never missing a beat.
Gambino continued his performance with a thumping rendition of “Worldstar” that had all of us fans holding our phones horizontally and chanting “WORLDSTAR! WORLDSTAR!” at the top of our lungs. “Worldstar,” a track off “Because the Internet,” is written from the perspective of an adolescent infatuated with watching fight compilations and other senseless violence and entertainment on the website Worldstar. Wide-eyed and perspiring as if he’d just run a 4.5 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, Gambino slowed to a two-step as the music and lighting mellowed out before changing to “Late Night in Kauai.” It is only fitting that the intensity of “Worldstar” be followed by a song that is the sonic equivalent of coming down from a high, a euphoric and barebone instrumental accompanied by Glover’s half-sung, half-rapped vocals.
The transition from “Kauai” to “Stand Tall” signaled the transformation from Childish Gambino to Donald Glover.
“Because the Internet” is an experimental shot in the dark with no clear reference point, while “Awaken, My Love!” is a callback to an established and illustrious sonic soundscape of funk and soul. If Glover’s discography was drawn on a pair of dice, these two albums exist on opposite sides of the die. His soaring falsetto sent chills down my spine as the background singers accented every vocal run. I felt the thundering bassline of “Boogieman” through the floor as Glover sang about police relations on a beat so infectious that the message might go right over your head. “Have Some Love” was a truly religious experience as we all joined in, clapping to the beat and singing the chorus with him:
“Have a word for your brother
Have some time for one another
Really love one another
It’s so hard to find”
Glover used the breakdown portions of the song to do James Brown-style slides and footwork, dancing as if he’d caught the Holy Ghost. The cacophonous “Riot” broke out right after. Glover flipped vocal tones with the dexterity of an Olympic gymnast across a mat. His performance of “Terrified” was a standout due to his vocal prowess and outstanding set design: Giant screens on either side of the stage showed Glover and what looked to be his wife or child’s mother submerged underwater in an artfully choreographed routine. “Feels Like Summer” saw a moving image of Los Angeles aflame with burning palm trees and familiar L.A. road signs.
Next, he performed another unreleased song that has been dubbed “Spirits” by his fans. It has to be witnessed in real time to be experienced and appreciated properly. Closing the official set with crowd-pleaser “This Is America,” Glover brought dancers out onto the stage that were featured in the video and helped close out the concert.
Or so we thought…
After going backstage, the stage lights shut off and the stadium lights turned back on. There was one thing left on most of our minds: what about “Redbone”? Glover goaded and teased us through SNL-style black-and-white backstage cameras until we cheered loud enough for him to return to the stage for an encore that included “Sober,” “3005,” “IV. Sweatpants” and — you guessed it — the one and only “Redbone.”
To me, “Awaken, My Love!” marked another notch in Glover’s ever-expanding belt of talents. The man has a creative appetite that few possess. That appetite might be for naught if he wasn’t successful in each of his endeavors, but he knocks it out of the park every time.
Leaving Madison Square Garden, I was still floating from the energy and recounting that blissful, out-of-body experience. At some point during a concert, you realize you’re in the same building as your favorite artist and are watching them perform songs YOU love. I’d say that feeling is priceless, but I have an account balance that reflects exactly what it cost me. It was worth every penny.
Donald Glover’s journey to stardom starts from his Derrick Comedy days on YouTube to writing for “30 Rock” and “Community.” Couple this with an astronomical rise to A-list stardom producing his own show, “Atlanta,” and lead roles in major movie franchises, and his story is beyond uncanny. It is unprecedented. Once a self-proclaimed outsider, Gambino has successfully leapfrogged and hop-scotched through different avenues of success and climbed the echelons of Hollywood in a way that few have or can hope to accomplish. “Mr. Talk-About-His-Dick-A Lot” wrote “Redbone” and “This is America.” Let that marinate in your brain, like the opening notes of “Me and Your Mama.” A religious experience it truly was, and as far as its finality — I sure hope Donald Glover is ready to produce more timeless music to inspire and impress. Stay woke.