Behind the curtain, one Donald Glover is amped as all get out. Or, perhaps, he is staring out at the crowd with a stone-like expression, still unseen by anyone but techs and the warmup act. Truth be told, unlike the perfected stage manner of a band like the Rolling Stones, you just can’t know the expression he’s wearing before the lights go up for each concert. It’s personal for him, which makes going to the concerts personal for us.
Much like Glover, the crowd surrounding me can’t be pegged to anything except young. And perhaps drunk. Glover’s rap is some mix of uncomfortably honesty, eschewed black stereotypes, and fun in general. Of all the concerts I’ve been to, Childish Gambino is the first one where I wasn’t exactly sure when the show started. “Were you on time?” you might ask. Yes, I was. “Were you paying attention?” Eyes glued to the stage. Jay-Z might come out with something iconic, like “Allow me to re-introduce myself, my name is HOV”. When I saw the Stones, they dropped the curtain to Jumping Jack Flash. Here’s Donald, just flying into the verse and jumping around like he’s already on the third song of a killer set. All of a sudden, we were in the middle of a great concert.
The other thing about the crowd: when we sing the lyrics to each other, read: not Gambino, each other, it’s a more impactful moment than it has any right to be. It’s all due to the lyrics. Many rappers will sing about how they have it so good and they did not used to have it so good. They will sing vaguely about people who doubted them every now and then. And the money, God the money. Gambino doesn’t let you forget who he is or who he was, and I don’t mean that in the cookie-cutter “from Anyhood, USA” sense. He will remind you that, yes, he’s doing OK for himself with Community and his tours, but that in no way outweighs being called “faggot” throughout his youth. This resonates with the crowd. Maybe it’s just me, but I think we realize our ceilings and have come to terms with them. We assume we will be happy with the money we eventually make, but it won’t be Yeezy status. We aren’t far enough removed from our teenage years to forget our detractors. We are rapping along to someone who made it and, as much as he can be, is one of us. He doesn’t have that screw-you-I’m-desensitized-to-it-all fame.
No offense to the other rappers who made it out of the projects, but I can’t relate to you emotionally. (I know, they’re so sad to not connect with a priviliged, white fan, as though that were their base.) Even if I were from the projects, there’s something artificial about getting hyped for someone who’s all about jumbo jets. Sure, some of my favorite artists whom I’ve seen in concert, like Clapton and Santana, ride in jets from concert to concert. But that’s not what their music is about. (Ex: Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’, which criticized lear jets while making them richer than they’ve ever been.) Glover is of the same type. Rather than rapping about the bitches he’s burning through (OK, so he does that), he raps about the uncertainty of his situation in ‘Heartbeat’: “Are we dating?… Are we best friends? Are we something in between that?” or “So I’m chilling with my girlfriend/But she’s not my real girlfriend/She’s got a key to my place but/She’s not my real girlfriend”. Who else says those things?
Listen to enough of his songs and you’ll see that Glover renounces the rap tropes, more often than not. A contrast to ‘Heartbeat’ would be anything from T.I’s “Whatever You Like” or Jay-Z’s “Just Give It 2 Me”, in which they brag about all the things they can buy women. Glover instead feels very conflicted about the idea of a woman not belonging to him in the traditional sense, even though he should by all means have bought into the “one-hour stand” rap thing by now.
That’s why it’s meaningful when the crowd looks each other in the eyes and sings the words. You wouldn’t feel out of line to say ‘Preach, man. Preach’ because, despite not being in Tinseltown, we could conceivably have the same shit going on in our lives as him, if the songs are any indicator. He knows who he is on stage: less of a focus-grouped superstar and more of a pissed-off poet. We don’t have to listen to him feigning gratefulness; we know he is. As a reward, he doesn’t beg the audience to scream for his fame. Remarkable, considering you won’t be at a rap concert for more than five minutes before other rappers remind you of their fame, whether it be through jewelry, demeanor, entitledness, aloofness, etc. The stage seems so much higher up when other rappers are on it, and not in a good way.
We’ll have to see where Gambino’s heart is at when he’s selling out the Staples Center. For now, a large part of the appeal comes from deserving everyone’s respect and not getting it. Example: the highlight of the concert was, far and away, “You See Me”. Go listen on YouTube and come back. It’s a solid track, but on the surface, it seems like every other rap song. Yada yada yada, I’m great. In concert, however, it has a whole different feel. I felt contempt for anyone who hadn’t listened to Gambino because he is great, especially concerning lyrical ingenuity. If anyone wasn’t singing along, I wanted to turn to them and say, “DO you see him?” along with the hook. I don’t know if it’s just the typical waiting period before a rapper explodes into the ionosphere or if there’s a true reluctance to accept Gambino because he “says [the N word] like a white kid” and “his clique… is freaks and geeks”. Whatever the reason, the man was balls-to-the-wall passion for the whole show and it felt wrong to be 10 feet away for the small fee of $30. I finally understand hipsters’ love of “obscure” things, although CG is far past that point.
Glover’s unimposing yet athletic build contributes to the stage being lowered to the plebian level. So does his fearless repetoire. The crowd was manic not because one of the biggest stars in the game descended to The Ogden. We went manic because this was someone you felt you could celebrate with. He was someone who never bothered to tell you he was psyched to be here between songs. That would be redundant and it always sounds forced. As he will tell you, he is just a rapper. The fact that we love his rap is all that need be said.