I SAW TWO SIDES OF DONALD GLOVER
I hate Beyonce.
It doesn’t have to do anything with her as an artist, or her music, or the fact that she is quickly becoming the new face of feminism. Rather, it’s the sheer amount of fandom she pulls that blinds everything that isn’t…Beyonce. Ms. Carter has such a massive following that when she dropped her unpublicized album on December 13, every artist that had released music that week (and for the following month) was quickly forgotten.
One of those musicians was Childish Gambino.
It’s unfortunate, because Gambino had one of the most creative rollouts of 2013, so much so that it got him nominated for a MTV Woodie Award (which, ironically, was won by Beyonce). Leading up to his December 10 release of Because the Internet, Gambino—the stage name of actor Donald Glover—put out multiple singles that never even reached the album, and published a 73-page screenplay to accompany the record. Glover set the whole process in motion last August with the release of his short film Clapping for the Wrong Reasons which set the backdrop for what quickly became another ‘world’ that surrounded Because the Internet. Said actions built hype around the record, and with its release, BTI quickly topped iTunes album sales, debuting at #1 and holding that position until Beyonce flipped the music industry head over heels.
But even if the critics shied away from Glover in the face of Ms. Carter, his fans certainly didn’t. Performing at the Hammerstein Ballroom Saturday night, Gambino drew quite the numbers. Never mind the floor; all three balconies were packed. The makeup of the crowd was a show in itself. One could write a social report and all groups would be equally represented (hipsters too).
From the pit, the vibe was weird before the show, and not in a good way. Glover has championed the value of coding over the past few months on Twitter, and channeled this notion through the Deep Web Tour app, one that allowed fans to chat and draw on a projected screen through their devices before the set. Nothing was filtered, and I’ll leave it at that. Some random DJ riled up the mob with the recent hip-hop hits. Stereotypical—and very attractive—groupies lounged on couches placed around the instruments on stage. Apparently Glover was walking through the crowd himself.
Yet the moment Gambino took the stage for his set, the presence of the 4000+ strong was immediately justified.
On stage, Glover’s acting background shines through, because he knows how to channel emotion when he performs. You feel it, damnit. He jumps around, he pounds the keys, he gets downright groovy with his moves. He hides nothing while owning everything. He is raw. You think he’s soft? Cool. “I’ve lost all hope of a happy ending / Depending on whether or not it’s worth it / So insecure, no one’s perfect” he raps in “3005”. Glover doesn’t care. He takes pride in it. Yet in the same channel he shows his rigor, kicking the lounging girls on couches off stage in a fit of rage during “The Party.” He’ll rap a line about having multiple girlfriends, then stare wide eyed at you in the crowd, as if saying, “Yeah, I can’t believe I did it either.”
This is where Glover elevates himself from his peers. Drake is often the most mainstream artist Childish is compared to, due to both individuals’ emotional realness in their music and ability to rap about nearly everything and make it feel awesome. Yet with Drake, you wonder if its lifestyle porn, because his music almost becomes a celebration between people over the awesomeness of said subject. But if there is no one there to share it with, is it really still that great? With Gambino this is not the case. I was alone at the Hammerstein; the music was still penetratingly effective.
After working through the majority of Because the Internet—and after singing an absolute gem out of “Urn”—Gambino exited the stage to the crescendo of “Earth: The Oldest Computer.” Returning for the encore, Glover might as well have announced another set. Gambino took it back to his Culdesac mixtape, rapping “Do Ya Like” over Adele’s looping croons, and did a medley of “So Fly” and “I Got This Money.” Steve G. Lover, Donald’s brother, came out to perform “One Up.” In total 10 songs were performed during the encore, finishing with a fiery rendition of “Bonfire” before Glover spit a freestyle and exited the stage for a second time.
As great as the set was at the Hammerstein, the real magic happened in the private after show.
I sprinted home through the rain, changed, and quickly regrouped with friends I ran into during the Hammerstein show at The Cutting Room, a bar just west of Murray Hill. If the Hammerstein was for business, The Cutting Room was for pleasure. A much more relaxed aura was apparent in the venue; there were only 150 of us in attendance. Intimacy reigned here.
As we entered the main room from the bar, Childish’s full band greeted us as they sat packed on the stage. One of the most overlooked aspects of Childish Gambino’s presence is the amount of musical talent he surrounds himself with. His live band is downright phenomenal. The show at The Cutting Room was a jazz session; Gambino spit his tracks, along with an unreleased song and covers, over beats that the band improvised the entire night. Improvised. The pianist went from playing the keys to piping the flute and back again. It was stupefying.
Additionally, during the private set it seemed as if a mask had lifted off of Glover. This wasn’t Childish Gambino; long gone was the serious, wide-eyed, smirking persona that had electrified Hammerstein two hours ago. No, this was Donald. He was smiling. Perhaps it was the company he had invited. Donald had called rappers Ab-Soul and Joey Bada$$, as well as the singer Lion Babe, to the event. Each artist performed one their tracks over a jazz backdrop before collaborating with Glover in certain aspects. The three rappers freestyled together in an almost rap-battle cypher formation, switching to-and-fro from each others verses, while Lion Babe sang with Glover to cover classic soul pieces such as
Jill Scott’s “Is It The Way You Love Me Baby” and Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love.” However, the crown of night was definitively Glover’s cover of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.” I was completely sober the entire evening, but during “Rock With You” I didn’t feel sober in the slightest. That was the power of his music.
Yet for most of the after show Donald Glover sat against a pillar to the right of the stage, letting the others take the spotlight. A small smirk crept to his face, growing into a full grin.
It was a mirror of the audience before him.