Sounding Board

Childish Gambino Draws Biggest-Ever Crowd To Outside Lands

Since the beginning of Childish Gambino, I’ve tried to meet Donald Glover where he’s at. Across his career, the TV-writer-turned-TV-star-turned-rapper has released a string of projects that showed potential without a whole lot of promise. His music was wide-ranging, with bountiful ideas, but none of them were enacted with much finesse. Most of them arrived flat on impact. But I hadn’t given up on my faith in Glover’s musical capacity, a belief built solely on extrapolation from his comedic genius. I wanted to like Childish Gambino because I liked Donald Glover; Community was one of the best shows on television, and if he was leaving it for music, it had to be worth it, right?

Upon the release of the sprawling mixed-media album Because The Internet, I did everything Glover assured me I needed to in order to have the full experience, listening to the music while reading the LP’s accompanying 72-page screenplay. Prior to that point, the prognosis on his rap career had seemed fairly dismal – his major label debut Camp arrived fussy and unkempt, and its preceding mixtapes tried to side-step the assumption that Glover would be doing joke-rap with heavy handedness that wound up funny for all the wrong reasons – but I still held on. Those early efforts, like Culdesac and EP, had their bright spots in savvy samples (“Do Ya Like”) or a keen sense of melody (“My Shine”), so if his songwriting was still rudimentary, especially in comparison to his work on NBC, then perhaps it was just incubating until it found the right venue.

Because The Internet was not the right venue. The sync between the album and screenplay was exhausting, and it made both pieces of media worse. Self-indulgence is a trait that has mostly served well all of Glover’s idols, from Kanye to Lil Wayne to Drake, but it backfires when the audience hasn’t bought into the sense that you’ve earned it. The stratified musical chapters affixing pretentious roman numerals onto already obnoxious song titles (“Earth: The Oldest Computer (The Last Night),” “Zealots of Stockholm [Free Information]”) tried to conceptually compensate for material that was largely one-note. I tried my best to like the album, because I was rooting for Glover, and yet he was making me work for my enjoyment.

Because The Internet was meant to be some kind of cross-platform statement opus, and yet any piece of work carrying the line “I got no patience, cause I’m not a doctor” is inherently not taking itself seriously enough. His follow-up LP, Awaken, My Love!, dabbled in a funkier palette and kept his historic awkwardness mostly in check (well, at least on record). He came up vamping over Grizzly Bear and Sufjan Stevens and has since moved on to more retro fare like George Clinton and Garth Brooks. But regardless of the source, the discrepancy between the material he worked off of and what he ended up with only served to further highlight his own limitations.

With each of his albums, Childish Gambino has been consistently unfocused, sliding in and out of styles with the frictional undercurrent of an inferiority complex. For all the sales and Grammys he’s accrued in his music career, Glover is keenly aware of his critical dismissal. Yet rather than rise to the occasion, Glover’s work continued to be undercooked while leaving it up to the listener to justify their appreciation.

Then he dropped “This Is America.”

Sharp-edged and sun-kissed, equally acerbic as it is musically sumptuous, the song doubles as both a bold statement and a total jam, an ideal Glover’s always strived for without striking. With “This Is America,” Glover finally managed to take Childish Gambino to the same heights as his rapturously received series Atlanta, delivering a full package of song craft that’s both filled with fresh ideas and fully realized. The concurrence of Atlanta’s second season with the instant-#1 hit and its Internet-breaking music video brought Glover to his most widely celebrated creative period. As one of our generation’s most successful jack of all trades and master of many, he’s since added to his winning streak with a debut directorial feature co-starring Rihanna, a role in the Lion King remake, and his first worldwide arena tour as Childish Gambino.

You can imagine that last feat is the most bittersweet for Glover, having reached a level many doubted he could achieve, let alone deserved. Earlier this year he cemented the size of his cultural footprint with a Coachella headlining set, and yet as the project’s been reaching this apex, Glover’s long been letting simmer the notion that his next album would be his last under the Childish Gambino moniker. His reasoning has been that having things end forces them “to get better.” His current festival show, which he brought last night to Outside Lands, is bittersweet proof of his theory. Not only a milestone for Glover, his headlining set drew Outside Lands’ biggest crowd yet.

Anyone who’s seen Childish Gambino on previous tours knows that even without a particularly deep catalogue to pull from, he can be an immaculate performer. He’s held shows everywhere from the desert to peoples’ apartment that have been well-received and were genuine “had to be there” occasions. While his insistence to “do it all” stretches himself thin on record, it suggests something like virtuosity on stage, where he’ll seemingly enter an “Avatar State” like zone and let loose a relentless symphony of eyes-shut falsetto, chest-beating howls, and angelically manipulated auto-tune.

His Outside Lands set was no different, opening with Bino emerging from the center of the crowd atop a disco ball draped platform, holding a battle-ready pose while staring intently down below as a prerecorded unreleased ballad precipitated a grand, heavily anticipatory mood. The effect was cinematic in tone, fitting since throughout the show, Glover was followed around by a camera crew that documented to a live feed every second of his aerobic dancing (a mesmerizing cross between Sada Baby and Carlton) and cartoonish facial gestures. The effect was similar to what Frank Ocean pulled off for his brief run of festival shows back in 2017, replicating a high-budget concert documentary in real time. Ocean’s was a bit more A24 in direction, but both allowed for a more immersive experience, especially with a character as expressive as Gambino, drawing the attention away from solely the dazzling display of bells and whistles and back to the man engineering them all.

Of course, those bells and whistles didn’t go unnoticed. The light show seemed expensive, a tasteful projection of vaguely psychedelic laser beams that fanned out over the crowd and then back in between the employed choir, dancers, and Bino’s spectacular backing band. That band helped elevate the set beyond those of rappers that typically reach headliner status, who quite often hide their backing musicians to the corner unlit if they even feature them at all. Gambino prominently assembled each member front and center and elevated, making visible the locked-in synchronicity between Glover dynamic vocals and their seemingly improvisational flourishes.

Together they seamlessly transformed each number throughout their extended runtimes, swinging rigorous funk into electro-prog gospel and crackling bass boomers into space-rock epics. They were instrumental to the unique atmosphere of the show, which spliced together both old beats and newer works with unreleased fragments presumably from his next album, but seemed tailor-made specifically for this live show. While audacious to play so much unheard music at your festival headlining set, the new compositions — “Atavista,” “Algorithm,” and “Human Sacrifice” — are so thoroughly conceived they stand out as the peaks against more familiar numbers like “The Worst Guys” and “3005.”

If anything, the inclusion of older material that now feels like the work of an entirely different artist might’ve threatened to destabilize the flow of the show, pulling you out of the accomplishment of his production by placing it side by side with material considerably less developed. But he’s managed to add not only new dimensions through his band, but also newly flex each song’s latent strongest elements. His breathless run of quotables on “Sweatpants” and “Worldstar” were delivered with an animated dexterity and colorful accents that downplayed the bravado and brought to the surface those songs’ underlying wells of joy. What initially felt like simple Funkadelic cosplay on Awaken, My Love! came across spiritually endowed during service-like renditions of “Riot” and “Boogieman.”

The new frame on that material, and the absence of any of the outright clunkers in his catalogue, suggest an intentionality and restraint that is reassuring of how much Glover’s music has grown. During the encore, when he reached for genuine career highlights like “Sober” and “Redbone,” Glover fed off the crowd’s rapturous response like a legend at his prime. It felt like watching peak-era Kanye as Glover delivered climactic notes of auto-tuned falsetto in harmony with the choir’s glorious accompaniment.

His wealth of innate talent juxtaposed with an inability to see it through has always made Childish Gambino among the most frustrating artists in hip-hop. But it’s clear on this final stretch of festival shows (he told the crowd his next performance at Austin City Limits would be the last for this tour) that he’s at last brought the project to the place he’s always known it could get to. “Love yourself forever. Don’t let the internet tell you you ain’t shit, you’re something special,” he instructed during a laid back freeflow of conversational thoughts at the midpoint of the show, one that touched on his love for the Bay Area through reflections on recent loss (“When I lost me dad, Ryan Coogler was the first person to hit me”) and social geography. After those words on his self-described second home, he continued the encouragement: “I like doing these shows because I can see the future right in front of me.”

With the details of his retirement still unclear, Glover seems to know as much about what his own future holds as anyone else. You’d hope what he saw in front of him, which apparently was the largest headlining attendance ever at Outside Lands, convinces him to rethink putting the project to rest. Because it would be a shame for him to wrap up Childish Gambino’s legacy just when it’s starting to pay the most dividends. Glover’s been inescapable this year, but beyond these shows he’s actually given very little time publicly to his musical alias. To let the project go out on these last notes would make for a grand finale, sure, but they’d be much better suited as the opening passage for a second act.