After Janelle Monae performed in cohort with nearly twenty dancers, executed at least four costume changes, perfected a pristine moonwalk (among many other moves) and brought out Lizzo and Tierra Whack for her sub-headlining set on the first day of Coachella 2019, it was easy to be skeptical about what Childish Gambino, the night’s formal headliner, could do to top all that. In fact, it crossed my mind more than a couple times during Monae’s set that she was delivering the kind of performance a headliner should — it was polished, beautiful, inspiring, and uplifting. And it was, for the most part, exactly what we’ve come to expect of her: Playful excellence executed with precision.
But Childish Gambino made his headlining set memorable by doing quite the opposite of all that — absolutely no one knew what he was going to do next, and how it would shake out in the end. So, when he kicked everything off by emerging shirtless on a tall pillar in the middle of the GA crowd, with cameras shooting him from below and effectively bringing the theatricality of his hit show Atlanta and the style of his “This Is America” video straight to the festival within his first moments as a top billing act, he reminded the audience just why he occupies that slot. Striding the long runway back to the main stage throughout the first song of his set, a gospel-inspired track that would sound familiar to anyone who followed the rather rare string of shows he put together last year, he ran through first (tentatively named) “Atavista” and then “Algorythm,” which are memorable as a two-song set debuted during those performances.
Performing initially against a backdrop of floating bubble lights and dreamy, backlit palm trees — which seemed like it might signal a lead-in to his new film Guava Island, though never did — after those first couple of songs, Glover immediately admonished his audience about rules, the first of which was to “feel themselves” and have a good time, the second was put away their phones for the stage had become his “church” (backup dancers and singers outfitted in choir robes flanked him under the big screens, visually echoing the thoughts) and the de facto third command was to “go home if they came here to hear their favorite song,” or move to the back if they wanted to Instagram. From the VIP section, which is already pretty close toward the back, I watched countless fans continue to Instagram the monologue, seemingly unconcerned with the condemnation. And while it was an admirable thought, the music and momentum of the spectacle onstage never echoed the fascinating joy the best church services render, even if it did contain a sort of self-fascination all its own.
The set only got weirder and more bizarre as it continued, but the fascination lay with the freedom of the cameras to follow him everywhere, anywhere he decided to go. Glover proved that his acting chops have informed his stage style to no end, using overly exaggerated facial expressions to add depth to his music, and getting downright conversational with the crowd at a number of points throughout the night. His laidback approach included lighting up a blunt during the first third of his set, and passing it down to an audience member who volunteered to smoke with him, right after he delivered a few deep cuts from his Because The Internet Era, “I. The Worst Guys” and “II. Worldstar.” For the blunt detour, Glover leapt off the stage and hand-delivered the smoke to a fan who he interrogated about age and then signed over the weed to almost entirely. From his spot down in the crowd, Glover called out his band, naming them and dubbing the female members “beautiful,” before improvising with them a bit and leading into a section of the set taken mostly from his 2016 breakout throwback funk project, Awaken, My Love!.
Getting emotional during “Riot,” Glover noted that out of an estimated 100,000 people in the audience, statistically there were probably a few who wouldn’t make it to next week. He talked about how millennials need to learn to “plant trees they won’t eat the fruit from,” something he thinks our generation is reticent to do, and discussed losing his father, losing Nipsey Hussle and Mac Miller, and dedicated a song to those three and the audience (“Riot”). By the time he got to “This Is America” five or six songs later — a detour through a short cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” came along on the way — Gambino had debuted an unknown track, run through another 2018 loosie, and hit a couple more Awaken era songs. Then came his Grammy-winning, conversation-igniting hit, “This Is America,” and though it seemed that might be his last song, he returned after a backstage stint that the cameras followed along for, and did three more Internet songs before actually finishing out the night out with the funk powerhouse, “Redbone.”
After making their way either home or to another after party, I assume most Gambino diehards fired up their devices in a quiet room and dove right into the film, Guava Island, while Gambino’s performance was still fresh. At 55 minutes, the film is shorter and a bit more tender, perhaps, than some expected, and felt a little disconnected from the raging performance from earlier in the night. And while musically it may not quite reach expectations — Rihanna doesn’t sing? — it once again cements the fact that Gambino knows how to wield a spectacle, whether that’s on the largest stage in the nation, or streaming on a computer in the quiet of a hotel room.