“Put your phones down. This is not a concert; this is an experience. We’re going to church.”
This is what Donald Glover — also known as Childish Gambino for one last night, at least — told the sellout crowd at The Forum in Los Angeles Sunday night. It was the beginning of his final two showa as Childish Gambino, as well as the conclusion of his most recent tour. It was one of those moments when stars aligned, when the world slowed down. In one of his final acts as Childish Gambino, Donald Glover spoke the absolute truth; it was an experience. It was spiritual.
From the beginning, Childish Gambino was a weird idea — but it was also maybe a necessary one. Back when Glover started out as punchline-heavy, Lil Wayne-influence rapper, it was probably important to him to separate the idea of him as an actor on Community from the idea of him as the rapper who made Camp. There had been rappers who’d made the transition to acting, like Will Smith and Ice Cube, and actors who’d made the transition to rap, like Mos Def and Drake, but to the best of my knowledge, there hadn’t been anyone who split time evenly between the two the way Donald Glover did.
Using Childish Gambino as a buffer likely allowed him to pursue film and television roles that he wouldn’t have been able to with mixtapes full of dick jokes and slightly cringe-y bars about dating Asian girls. The internet hadn’t quite achieved its 2015 levels of attack-dog wokeness, but production companies were still pretty brand conscious and wary of problematic characters, and hip-hop, then as now, was still considered problematic by the mostly old white men in charge of these businesses.
Of course, Childish Gambino also gave rap fans an avatar to root for; as much as Drake’s early fame as a cast member on Canadian teen soap Degrassi: The Next Generation gave him a launching pad for his career, it’s given skeptics one of their prime tools to tear him down as well. As Donald Glover’s profile rose, so did Childish Gambino’s, but separately; his half-serious campaign to appear as Spider-Man in a Sony-produced reboot of the film franchise didn’t exactly score him a spot on the XXL Freshman cover, while his turn on Girls likely had little effect on the success of Because The Internet.
But then a funny thing happened; Childish Gambino evolved. Rather than rat-a-tat flows and brain-twisting metaphors, he settled into a groove of producing cool, throwback melodies and heartfelt, sincere anthems. His passion for film started to bleed into his musical product; he directed videos for Jhene Aiko, he wrote and produced a short film to accompany the release of Internet, and people finally, maybe began to think that Childish Gambino and Donald Glover could co-exist. The need for a separate entity has long passed.
And so, at The Forum Sunday night, Donald Glover took to the stage for the final time as Childish Gambino and gave his alter ego a worthy send off, blessing the crowd with hit after hit after hit. What felt remarkable about his performance were the ways in which he made himself the focus. Where other arena shows often invest in elaborate stage setups, Gambino’s stripped-down approach allowed his performance to take center stage — literally. With the band in the pit and his extended platform a catwalk away from the main stage, the entire approach felt like a calculated risk.
Instead of a backdrop, the main stage was dominated by what I can only describe as two, giant, rotating, video dominoes which sometimes displayed geometric patterns and shapes and other times, videos highlighting the music. They were used to great effect during “Terrified,” but there were other times they were slid almost completely off the stage, providing a clear view of the backstage area. Yet, all eyes remained on Glover, captivated.
He wasn’t lying when he said he would take us to church. He didn’t just bring backup singers, he brought a praise team. He cavorted across the stage in paroxysms of musical ecstasy. Even holding himself back as he did (the specter of his foot injury during his Dallas stop which delayed the end of the tour hovered just over his shoulder, keeping him from really cutting loose), his energy poured out of every fiber of him, seeping out into the crowd who magnified it and beamed it right back.
He even left the stage for extended periods to walk among the people at points during the show. He once said he felt like Jesus; it’s easy to imagine a similar scene of barely controlled chaos and adoration for the Nazarene when he walked through similar crowds himself. Glover’s naturally storytelling ability came through in everything from the choreography, which made space for him to leave the stage and roam the backstage hallways pursued by a cameraman on his sojourn into the cheap seats, to his setlist, which even featured a new song that hinted at a new, synthwave-esque direction.
I’ve always found it odd that so many stars lead their concerts with their one, big undeniable hit. It leaves the crowd with little to anticipate, and nowhere for their energy to disperse to. There are pockets of fans who each have their favorites, but that group catharsis is wasted at the front end of the set. Donald Glover, admitted church boy and aspiring musical messiah, seems to understand this innately. He gave the crowd “Sober,” and “3005,” he gave them “Zombies” and a Ludwig Göransson guitar solo, but as he closed the set, a frisson of confusion and concern shot through the pre-climactic audience. He wouldn’t really leave us with it, would he?
He would not. He saved “Redbone” for the encore, closing out his set, his tour, and an entire chapter of his life with the song that had come to define its final few pages. “Redbone” as closer was more than appropriate; it was kismet. It was the song that finally united the two halves of the whole, where Childish Gambino became Donald Glover and where Donald Glover came into his own. It was the perfect moment to close the book on Childish Gambino, the silly invention of an insecure aspirant and open the one on Donald, the artist who can do whatever wants.