Childish Gambino Doesn’t Need You to Tell Him He’s Cool Anymore

When Donald Glover closes his eyes and falls in a crumpled heap to the Honda Stage floor at the end of the psychedelic “Riot,” are we supposed to think that he’s actually dead? Later, when the house camera catches him staring up at his drummer, his back to the audience, flashing an awed grin, holding his pose while the syncopation of “Stand Tall” crescendos, looking like a Broadway leading man facing up to a cardboard cutout of a mountain, his coke-white jumpsuit pulled down around his waist, are we supposed to think that he’s about to climb some Everest? When he says, “I love you” to the crowd as though he’s got a point to prove at the end of “I. Crawl,” like he’s deploying it in the middle of an argument, accentuating every syllable and raising his eyebrows and pointing into the front row beneath him, are we supposed to think that Childish Gambino loves us?

The Honda is Governors Ball’s second stage, but it’s twice as full here for Childish Gambino’s set as it is for Phoenix’s simultaneous headline slot on the other side of the park. This is the first show that Glover’s played in the northern hemisphere since the release of 2016’s Awaken, My Love! and he tells the crowd that this will be his only show this year. Between having a kid, preparing for roles in the next Star Wars and a new Lion King, and plotting a new series of his much-lauded FX series Atlanta, Donald Glover is busy. Bringing his sleek, slithering neo-funk to an audience that loves him now more than ever can’t be a priority. There are only so many hours in the day.

All this—the idea of Donald Glover the award-winning polymath—should be simple. But Donald Glover and Childish Gambino have always had a strange relationship and that’s always been a problem for his critics who have obsessed over questions of authenticity and coolness. The consensus that Childish Gambino’s rich-millennial rap was corny (thanks in no small part to that Pitchfork review of Camp) persisted through the sprawling and ambitious Because the Internet and the palm tree pop of Kauai. Critics were always looking for ways to poke holes in Childish Gambino’s persona—he got his name from a Wu-Tang Name Generator! What a nerd!—and eventually the thing was so porous that it wouldn’t float.

Total reinvention, then. Tonight he walks on to Awaken opener “Me and Your Mama” and the mean funk-rock of “Boogieman,” the band filling out the back of the stage while Glover’s presence fills every other inch of the park. He shimmies and flutters when the mic’s in the stand, then struts from one side of the stage to the other when he picks it up. Tonight could have been this and this only: All 11 Awaken tracks, pretty much in order, a rapturous Glover throwing his back into every song but staying quiet in between. It could have been a passive-aggressive statement from an artist who’s understandably tired of the questions.

It is emphatically not that. Things go quiet for a second after the opening one-two and then we’re wrestled back into the past. The first line of his Chance the Rapper collaboration “The Worst Guys” comes in without warning. “All she needed was some” can be heard precisely one time before the audience swallows the line whole. Reviewing Camp at Grantland back in 2011, Rembert Browne wrote that he was “excited and thrilled” that Glover’s existentially critical lyrics, his way of wrestling with his own black experience, were having an impact on “the younger, more malleable-minded cohort.” Well, they’re six years older now. They’re following along with “Rather blast a Jackson 5 in the back of an Acura / Acting blacker than a Bernie Mac, two Charlie Murphys and Akon,” and then collectively erupting to echo Glover: “They girls that you brought, man, where are they from / Where are they from / We were playing Playstation.”

The reinvention of Childish Gambino relied on us thinking that this was a clean break. Once a rapper, then a pop musician, now a funk singer/bandleader. We’re supposed to believe that this was a new man. But the old and new blend perfectly tonight. His flow over the warehouse atmospherics in ‘II. Worldstar” doesn’t feel all that far from Awaken‘s “Have Some Love” when the two are brushing up against each other. Better still is “Oakland,” a glorious pop-soul song from the start, now in a more comfortable setting next to the smooth and sinister “Terrified.” He pulls every thread together into a perfect knot.

He seems to enjoy every minute of it. He plays with the crowd, holding his hands on the back of his head and fucking the air in slo-mo. In the breakdown of “Terrified,” he flexes a little. “You know this little kid who sang this? He’s gonna play baby Simba.” As he walks offstage the first time, he tells the crowd that they’ve been “exactly what I needed.”

But maybe he’s not enjoying this at all! Maybe when he encores with a cover of Tamia’s “So Into You,” it’s all contrived. Maybe he’s lying when he says that the decision to play the warm and glitchy “Sober” was spontaneous. He definitely planned out his closer: a fake house party, narrated by Glover, a guide to Getting The Girl. He gets to dance along to “Get Silly” and “Sex With Me” before telling the crowd that, if everything were to work out perfectly, you’d need the perfect make-out song. After creating this perfect comic space, he drops into “Redbone,” which, he’s right, is perfect, and everyone here knows it, and everyone wants to make out. Maybe that was all fake!

And if it was, who cares? Donald Glover is too talented to get away with off-the-cuff spontaneity now: his falsetto is too soulful, his songwriting is too natural, his jokes are too funny, his smile is too disarming. We won’t get another chance to ask the Very Important Critical Questions about Childish Gambino again this year—Glover will be too busy winning Emmys, raising a kid, and voicing baby Simba. So we’ll just have to settle for Childish Gambino, the performer and the songwriter, who wants us to make out, who can blur the lines between hip-hop and pop and funk not just by throwing them together on a track, but by mastering all three.

Alex Robert Ross wants to move to California. Follow him on Twitter.

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