Childish Gambino and the amazing technicolor dream set

Wednesday, June 26, 2019 - 3:52pm

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Childish Gambino announced in early 2018 that his next project would be his last. Not the last for the musician, but for the online, Wu-Tang Clan generated moniker that he had been producing music under for over a decade. I imagine then, a new, more mature Donald Glover will rise from those ashes and continue to make Grammy-worthy records. But until that day comes, we are left to wonder what the musician’s post-Gambino profile will look like.

Gambino headlined the 2019 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, playing Friday’s first nighttime show on the main stage, just as the sun had tucked itself behind the rolling hills of rural Tennessee. Gambino followed on the heels of a disappointing Avett Brothers set, made worse by the fact that the anxious crowd showed all the excitement of sitting in a checkup waiting room. It was clear most of the patronage to the Avett Brothers was an attempt at scoring prime Gambino real estate, some of the audience members beginning the glacial push toward the front even before the previous performance finished. After a few false sightings (each accompanied by ecclesiastical screeches, then ho-hum groans), the singer-rapper made his entrance on a rising platform, unearthed from the center of the pit. Fog machine blowing and spotlight showing, we caught sight, for the first time, of the figure of this final Gambino chapter: long beard, partially braided hair, loose white drawstring sweatpants, a shirtless upper body. 

This is the Childish Gambino we first met in the viral music video for his single “This is America” — a gruff, aged reincarnation of the lanky kid that first broke through playing Troy on the NBC sit-com “Community.” Gambino has come a long way in that time, releasing three studio albums (Camp in 2011, Because the Internet in 2013 and Awaken, My Love! in 2016) and a slew of mixtapes in the decade since, his musical stylings evolving just as much as his look. 

It was interesting to see these changes played out in the audience’s energy over the course of the show. The first half of his set came mostly from Awaken, before the artist looped back around to finish the night off with his older crowd favorites. There was a noticeable disconnect when Gambino played tracks off that third studio album, the crowd drifting off during “Zombies” and “Riot,” snapping back into focus as soon as the first chords of “Sober” hit, then falling asleep again when more Awaken was played. (Surprisingly, the crowd was most receptive to all of Gambino’s post-Awaken singles, the Summer Pack and “This is America,” a collection of songs I think was a drop-off after the inventive third album.)

Awaken was a departure for Gambino, leaving his trademark snarky bars behind for a more soulful R&B sound. Though it topped out at number 5 on the US charts, the highest mark of any of the three studio albums, the album’s startling change of pace from the expected obscenities associated with the Gambino brand seems to have affected Awaken’s staying power, raising questions as to how the next chapter of Donald Glover’s music will be received.

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Gambino announced himself to the music world as, essentially, a quippy rapper — one armed with clever bars about being a nerdy black kid from the projects — his verses often laden with an undercurrent of dual identity. Gambino’s music was raunchy and obscene, but, at its core, playful more than anything else. The rapper seemed to enjoy letting his wordplay flourish, even if the lines about girls and money were, at times, pretty vapid. I look at this era of Gambino’s music as the final evolution of the types of raps two high school sophomores would pass back and forth in the back of AP Chemistry. Raunchy and humorous, they don’t seem to care what anyone else thinks of them. Camp-era Gambino leaned on his writing more than anything sonic in the songs he produced, the beats often fairly simple, allowing the focus to land on the rapper’s talent for lyricism.

Gambino left out of his Bonnaroo set the hit single from Camp, “Bonfire.” Quick-witted and crude, “Bonfire” epitomizes early Gambino, and had long stood as the poster child for what a Childish Gambino song looked like. Leaving it out was a curious snub, the musician even shoving the single’s iconic, siren-sounding intro in between “3005” and “Sweatpants” before abandoning the song, never returning to it before his time on stage was up. As he walked away, everyone was floored by the performance, but disappointment from the lack of “Bonfire” and “Freaks and Geeks,” another Camp-era hit, were common grumblings.

Looking at the artist’s musical trajectory, since even before Camp hit the charts, the at first strange absence of these two songs begins to make some sense. Gambino’s second studio album Because the Internet was a step forward in production value and size from Camp. It was experimental in its highly sequential, narrative format, and though not all its risks paid off, Because the Internet lives on as an interesting attempt at using music as a stepping stone for a more expansive, multimedia experience — the album was released with an accompanying (near-interminable) seventy-two-page screenplay as well as a short film.

From Because the Internet, we got two of Gambino’s biggest hits to date, “Sweatpants” and “3005.” Both of these Because the Internet singles have iconic music videos where the artist raps deadpan into the camera while absurdities abound around him. The two videos have a lot of similar qualities and reflect the atmosphere of adolescent character erosion that the project’s screenplay and short film also focus on creating. This can be seen as Gambino Mach 2, an ambitious artist working on ways to connect his two diverging careers. Because the Internet has some of the same witty qualities of Gambino’s earliest work, but already the artist was stomaching his ego to try something new. 

Jumping forward, the R&B stylings of Awaken, My Love! are nearly unrecognizable as the future sonic direction for the kid behind Camp, but looking at his discography from 10,000 feet up, a clear trend toward new directions at every major step starts to emerge. Awaken has none of the iconic witticisms that so saturated the Camp-era projects. It drops the expansive ambition of Because the Internet as well, making a point to be as simple, and as soulful, a showcase of Gambino’s singing talent as it can be. Hidden beneath this 10-year discography is an artist with an incredible ear and an incredible voice, and it seems as he continues to make music, these once-hidden talents will continue to be paid more notice. 

Gambino is not alone in the music world as an artist whose later projects trend away from the sound that originally made their name. Two artists with similar timelines and statures, Kid Cudi and Chance the Rapper, both reinvented themselves in their sophomore and junior projects, leaving fans of their previous work left feeling slighted. Which raises an interesting question on what responsibility (if any) an artist has to continue the spirit of the work that made them famous in the first place. On one hand, an artist whose projects seem too iterative on past work may be viewed as lazy or unoriginal, so caught up in their old sound that they’re afraid to push at their boundaries.

On the other, an artist whose projects are always a leap into the avant-garde may be viewed as too in their head — obsessed with the notion that they can do anything, that anything they try will be great, they consistently work too far out of their element, eventually completely losing track their roots. In the end, whatever choices a musician makes about their artistic trajectory will ultimately be settled in the court of public opinion. The artist shouldn’t lose sleep over alienating their base, though they should know full well that any step outside of their proverbial box runs the risk of cutting them off from the fans they’ve worked so hard to cultivate. If the new stuff is good enough, people will stick around. If it’s not, we stomach our blows, regress back to our path, and we return to form with something like Cudi’s Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’.

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I turned to one of my ‘Roo companions in the middle of the set, and we’d both noticed the same thing: The cinematography for the video projected on the screens on each side of the main stage was suspiciously good. As Gambino walked across the front of the pit, working the crowd, the gimbal-mounted camera that followed behind him caught in startlingly high definition the aphoristic between-song-speeches as well as the vista of the Bonnaroo crowd. At one point when Gambino walked backstage, letting his terrific band carry for a moment, this same crystal-clear, documentary-worthy camerawork went backstage too.

Gambino was adamant to heap high praise on the crowd, some of the early lines dipping their toes into pandering waters. That was okay. It was nice to hear he appreciated us nearly as much as we did him. Though paired with the cinematography and the captivating choreography of the on-stage props, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were playing a part in something bigger than this one performance. As Glover approaches the planned obsolescence of his Gambino moniker, I wonder what the exit plan looks like. How do you most gracefully leave a persona behind?

It seems, in the six-seven-eight years since the debut of many of the tracks Gambino played, he has tweaked and transposed them many times over to better suit the stage. I tried to heed the artist’s plea to “put our phones away” and “be here for the music,” meaning I didn’t have many clips of the performance. In my week of preparation to write this article, that left me with only my (increasingly) faulty memory as source material. This sent me to the internet to try to track down clips of the show that other people had snuck through and uploaded.

Listening to one version of “3005” from Gambino’s 2015 Bonanroo performance (this was on accident), I noticed that the arrangement of the song was completely different from what I had heard live. In pretty much all the songs he played live (especially those from Awaken), the artist had stripped down the electronic, synthesized components, replacing them with a stellar band and chorus. “3005” became a bouncy, beach tune; “Sweatpants” became a rock hit. Glover has had a full career under the Childish Gambino moniker to primp and preen the set, giving us, the audience, a novel opportunity to observe what the true final form of an artist might look like — one whose body of work has been iterated upon and is now better understood, one whose grand finale has been set in his sights.

The result was a near-perfect performance from a multi-talented musician who is able to lean on his many different assets to bring an almost multilingual energy throughout the course of a show. Gambino was a rockstar, a rapper, a conductor, a belting alto — all in the span of an hour and a half. If these are the performances that mark the artist’s swan song, then so be it. He has proven his wide range of musical talents, though I don’t know why anyone would have doubted the intersectional ability of the writer, director, actor, comedian, musician in the first place.