“This is not a concert. This is church,” said Donald Glover Monday night in Los Angeles at the beginning of the final stop on his nationwide This Is America run.
And he wasn’t joking. Religiosity abounded throughout, from the gospel choir-supported new track “Algorythm” that invokes a higher power (“A voice keeps on telling me/That we’ve got to be/That we have to be/Free”), to his Jesus-like attire (no shirt, white pants), to the fact that the camera shot Glover like a deity, looking up at him from behind so that he appeared godlike whenever he stretched out his arms (“Why didn’t he play Jesus?” my friend asked me, referring to NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live!). The performance was uplifting, fun, and exciting, with Glover making full use of his talents, all in service of giving his rap persona the send-off he deserves and teasing what to expect from the final Childish Gambino album.
But if you were expecting a nostalgic and reflective tour of Gambino’s entire history, you would’ve been disappointed, as the Atlanta mastermind barely touched anything that came out before the Grammy-nominated, happy-sad Because the Internet. The bulk of the set was instead made up from his critically acclaimed 2016 album Awaken, My Love!, with some new material sprinkled throughout. Sure, there were a few nods to earlier releases, like using the intro of “Bonfire” to transition from “3005” to “Sweatpants,” and an interpolated “Unnecessary” (remember Royalty?) at the end of “Boogieman.” But for the most part it seemed like he viewed everything that came before 2014 as the work of someone else. One telling moment arrived in the encore when he dedicated “3005” to the “Day One” fans — a bit of a revisionist history that shortens Gambino’s lifetime by a half-decade and makes one think of a Kylo Ren line from Star Wars: The Last Jedi: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”
To be fair, it’s easy to understand why Glover would want to distance himself from his earlier output. Despite there being some enjoyable songs on Culdesac, EP — which birthed his still-iconic red hoodie look in the “Freaks and Geeks” music video — and Camp, there are far more cringeworthy ones featuring alienating and sophomoric lyrics about his penis and Asian women, and cheesy pop culture references that were a result of his punky war against “cool rap” (see Camp’s “You See Me”). Even the best of those tracks wouldn’t play well in 2018 and would conflict with the mature, Renaissance Man auteur persona Glover has spent years cultivating through Because the Internet (the first time he tried to merge his two personalities by releasing it with a script), his dreamy and artsy short films, the fantastic and surreal masterpiece that is Atlanta, and of course the firebrand 2018 “This Is America” music video.
The focus on the present and future served as a reminder of not only how much Glover has grown as a musician, but also of what makes him so special: he is one of pop culture’s foremost chameleons. He can mix Internet tracks like the hyperactive “Worldstar” and chill “The Worst Guys,” and perform them alongside a stripped down rendition of “Stand Tall” or the Funkadelic-inspired “Have Some Love” — the latter reaching such an ecstatic peak on tour that even Glover, who tried to remain serious for most of the two-hour set, couldn’t help but briefly smile. Assuming you didn’t look up the setlist beforehand, it was almost impossible to truly predict what was coming next.
One of the most surprising moments of the final tour stop was when Glover — who has become increasingly private over the last five years — opened up about his personal life, specifically the recent passing of his father, before diving into “Riot.” “I wanted to play him some of the new songs. He didn’t want to hear them because he was like, ‘I know they’ll be great.’ I’m not saying that to talk about music. I say that to talk about trust. That’s what love is,” he said as his voice cracked ever so slightly. “I hope you guys get to feel that kind of love and trust in your life. There’s nothing like it. So, this song is for you, and this song is for him.” It was yet another rare instance where he dropped any kind of façade. But Glover has always tried to avoid producing anything that was stock, both musically and on-screen. While his journey from quasi joke-rapper to falsetto crooner/provocative social commentator isn’t totally surprising (there were hints of his potential even on Camp), it’s still rather remarkable. “I never want to do the same thing twice and I always try to do something different and I always try and make sure it’s classic material. It’s very easy to make stuff that’s disposable,” he told EW ahead of Atlanta‘s 2016 debut.
Looking ahead, the new material he performed on tour suggests that the final Gambino album will be yet another stylistic departure that will move through several genres while also tackling themes he’s explored throughout his entire career. For example, “Algorhythm” captures the energy of a negro spiritual while commenting on the sameness of dance music with lyrics like “Everybody wanna feel the same way/but everybody wanna do the same thing” and “Everybody move your body, now do it/Here’s something that’s gonna make you move and groove.” Then there’s a moody untitled track that touches on loneliness (“I cannot explain the feeling, I’m alone/The loneliness”). What’s remarkable is how both of these songs will somehow appear on an album that will also include the fun throwback “Saturday” and the breezy single “Summertime Magic”. But it’s also possible these tracks won’t actually end up on the record. At this point, the only thing we can count on Glover doing is surprising us.