In June 2017, Donald Glover made headlines when he announced the forthcoming retirement of Childish Gambino. As a man who embraces endings, Glover made clear that, at some point in the near future, his Gambino persona would no longer output music. Some perceived the notion to signify that he will be recording and performing under his government name; a change in identity instead of abandoning the medium altogether.
Since the release of his 2013 sophomore album, Because the Internet, Donald Glover hasn’t artistically been the creative who bloggers and fans became acquainted with in the late aughts and early twenty-tens. He moved beyond the comedic, Lil Wayne-esque punchlines and personal narratives that can be found in the archives of his discography. He is now driven by a voice that shines of gold and writing that leans into the conceptually abstract. Reinvention is natural for the ever-changing artist; signifying the change of sound and style with a new name would be a logical decision.
Last week, while driving to Duluth, a suburban city in Gwinnett County, Georgia located 30 miles north of Atlanta’s downtown area, the thought of Gambino's retirement came to mind. Travel was slow; hoards of cars and trucks traveling toward Duluth’s Infinite Energy Center, where Childish Gambino would be performing, crawled slower than the impeachment of America's 45th president.
The opening night of Gambino's This Is America Tour marked the homegrown talent's first show in Georgia since his FX series Atlanta premiered in 2016. Upon entering the event facility, no one was forewarned that on this night, the headliner would declare this to be his last run on the road.
I should have known something was up when I saw red hoodies at the merch table. Followers of Gambino since 2011, the year he released EP, will recognize the outerwear from “Freaks and Geeks,” his first ever music video. The selling of the hoodie felt significant once the show began and as he made it a point to shout out all his "day-one fans." This is common of any concert, but Gambino, someone who has always existed as an outsider along the margins and is now bigger than ever, put a lot of emphasis on the early birds. Consider the hoodie as a memento, a relic from his past being offered once more. If you know, you know.
Day-one fans are the ones who remember when his intimate concerts were also dual comedy shows. The duality of Glover the comedian and Gambino the rapper allowed him the chance to tour with himself, beginning his set with jokes before performing any music. It’s a concept Jamie Foxx could pull off, but few possess the comedic knack and musical talents to bridge the two mediums and make both the open and close entertaining and engaging.
To be clear, there are no jokes told during Gambino’s This Is America Tour. Nostalgia is the hoodie; little else is a return to the bygone days of Blog Bino. The Atlanta native makes two points clear from the beginning of his set: This is his last tour, and a Childish Gambino show isn’t a concert, but rather an experience. He wants you to feel as if you are attending an evening in the church. These aren’t just songs, but sermons.
Starting with “Algorithm”—an unreleased song that was shared with ticket buyers but with the verses removed—you feel Gambino's intent to imprint new memories instead of leaning solely on old ones. A backing choir adds to what makes his opening record large and monumental. Screams and ovations filled the stadium. Without anyone knowing the words, he caused something to stir inside them.
Admittedly, hearing Gambino sing live is a striking spectacle in and of itself. In the arena is where the range and growth of his vocal abilities are on full display. Hearing a variety of pitches and octaves in person was a reminder of the arresting live performance of his 4x Platinum single “Redbone” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2016. He proved then there were no studio effects added to pitch his voice, and being able to witness the live rendition of each of his records further cements how astounding this is.
Vocal-driven records like “Boogieman,” Terrified,” “Sober,” and “Summertime Magic” live up to their studio recordings, if not better. One of the strongest vocal performances was “Stand Tall,” the only record Gambino sang while offstage. No holy ghosts were caught in the crowd, but there wasn’t a single soul who wasn’t stung by the skin-tingling performance. Goosebumps, no R.L. Stine.
The setlist consists of Gambino's recently released Summer Pack EP, the two unreleased songs sent to fans who bought concert tickets, the Billboard chart-topping “This Is America,” “Sober,” and select records from Because the Internet and 2016's GRAMMY-nominated "Awaken, My Love!" Having an expansive palette allowed for a unique tempo that could change at any second. Moods were altered depending on the type of record Gambino would shift into, but the excitement was contagious and unwavering. The crowd sang to the pop records, swayed to the soul songs, and was boisterous for bangers.
There’s nothing overly flashy about Childish Gambino. He’s jubilant, but he isn't Chris Brown with the dance moves. What he lacks in ostentatious movements he makes up for with presence and by adding all the necessary pieces to make the stage enamoring. The large, rotating projector that stands behind him is magnificently crafted. The lasers and images put on display were hard to look away from. You'll recognize the effects from his Saturday Night Live performance of “This Is America"; the same technology but completely enhanced.
Equally impressive are the background dancers, choir, and band. The excellent use of lighting is also a key factor, giving the show its look and feel. Expensive is the word that came to mind as I watched the event unfold; the visual experience is equally as impressive as the musical one.
It came as no surprise when the roof lifted from the building as “This Is America” rumbled from wall to wall or the full-blown sing-along initiated during the post-encore closer, “Redbone.” Both of his biggest mainstream records were received like number-one singles by a superstar. Popular fan-favorites like “V. 3005,” “I. The Worst Guys”—especially Ludwig’s guitar solo—and “IV. Sweatpants” caused the audience to sing and rap their hearts out. The tour brings into full focus how Gambino is no longer the niche artist on the outside but a big-ticket act with staying power—if he so chooses.
There’s an accessibility to Gambino's most recent music. The warm and digestible pop songs aren’t layered cakes but homemade apple pies. The Summer Pack EP and “All Night” (another unreleased track) are examples of the same pivot we watched The Weeknd make a few years prior. There was a noticeable change from House of Balloons, his breakout mixtape, and Beauty Behind the Madness, the sophomore album that introduced Abel Tesfaye to a wider, mainstream audience. The Toronto singer bridged the druggy, risqué R&B that made him famous with a pop sensibility that made him a giant.
After watching Gambino live, I see the same ambition in this arc of his career. He’s after a version of mainstream timelessness through an alternative summertime pop sound. He broke in when no one expected him to, and now he's plotting on how to stay.
The Weeknd was able to make a seamless transition from his alternative R&B niche into wider visibility by using the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack to backdoor “Earned It” into the consciousness of an untapped market. Glover has the same reach—he operates within various entertainment mediums. He's a man of many roles, of many names and faces.
After taking my seat, I noticed next to me a gentleman showing off an action figure for a camera. The toy was Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, the infamous character he played as in the summer blockbuster Solo: A Star Wars Story. Something about seeing the tiny figure came with the realization of how many spaces Glover currently holds power in. It was fun not knowing if the music inspired the man to see Glover act, or if it was the acting that led him to see Gambino sing live.
With over 11,000 people in attendance, I’m certain everyone’s relationship and entry point with the multifaceted entertainer was unique. Just a few months ago, my sister-in-law saw Gambino’s cover of Tamia’s “So Into You” and texted me “Why didn’t you tell me Earn could sing?” in reference to the character he plays on his series, FX’s Atlanta. The message was a reminder of how many people are still uncovering the various sides and talents of Donald Glover. After spending a majority of his music career as an outsider, the awareness continues to rise.
I can only imagine how big Glover will be after Disney’s forthcoming Lion King adaptation and the third-season return of FX’s Atlanta.
Compared to the other shows I’ve attended this year, Gambino's set on the This Is America Tour was the least disorderly, with almost no profanity. Glover is older, and the music he makes isn’t inspiring elbow swings or mosh pits. The experience he’s selling comes with an all-ages comfortability. He’s no longer an outcast creating music on the outskirts, but a budding pop star with the appeal to match his notoriety. The stage is a homecoming for all the versions of himself to gather in one place. Music is the universal language that has the best chance of converging all his many worlds into one place for all to see.
People aren’t coming just for Gambino, but to see Donald Glover, Lando Calrissian, Earnest "Earn" Marks, and Simba. Some will even see Troy Barnes sing, dance, and entertain.
JAY-Z’s Fade To Black must be mentioned when considering grand finales and leaving with a bang. The 2004 documentary captures Hov's au revoir to hip-hop, a concert billed as his final performance at Madison Square Garden. Retirement didn’t last long for Jay, but if he chose to stay away then Fade To Black was a satisfying final chapter. If Gambino is serious about retreating from the stage, will the excellent This Is America Tour be a suitable end to such an unconventional music career?
I walked away thinking Childish Gambino gave all he had. In that sense, his final concert reminds me of the final episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. One of the last scenes finds Will cutting off the lights in the empty Bel-Air mansion. It’s a simple way of symbolizing the end; the show had no more stories to tell, we received all they had to teach us. After six seasons the beloved characters were moving on, entering the next stages of their lives. Gambino can relate.
As I walked out of Infinite Energy Center and looked back at the stage, the lights were still on and people were still standing around. They appeared to be waiting for Gambino, hoping, at least, that he would come out once more. In their opinion, there was still more for him to say. Naive as they were, it’s the ones who wait that are first in line for the return. JAY-Z returned. Even Carlton broke the silence of Will's final goodbye to tell one more joke. There can always be more.
To witness the This Is America Tour is to see the homecoming of an artist who wasn't allowed in and now has the luxury of choosing how long he stays. He's too big to ignore and too talented to forget. I believe Childish Gambino will be retired sometime soon, but I have a hunch Donald Glover will sing again.
By Yoh, aka Fade To Yoh, aka @Yoh31
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