On Tuesday night, Donald Glover told Denver fans they had bought a ticket to the last Childish Gambino tour in history. If the 35-year-old artist’s words hold true, it’s too bad. As Gambino, Glover gave the Pepsi Center audience something rare from the stage: a glimpse at raw creativity.
That’s not a nice way of saying his set was sloppy — far from it. But unlike so many artists, whose over-the-top expressions of vulnerability are as greasy as chicken nuggets and as indigestible, too, Glover performed with a glint of brilliant madness. He didn't dish out three-minute soap operas to jerk tears; instead, he created joy while being self-reflective and critiquing society.
Early on in the show, he asked fans to put their phones away, saying, “Don’t commodify this moment.” It was a welcomed order, because watching a concert with thousands of people gawking through screens is a grim experience. But it’s a bit naive to suggest that a stadium concert can avoid being a commodity; after all, people spent tens, some hundreds, of dollars on their tickets to consume his offerings. It’s big business, no matter how radical his intent.
Glover is best known as a hip-hop, R&B, funk and pop singer because the music industry hasn’t caught up with the times and found a word to market more experimental artists like him. Glover’s dance moves lean on voguing, tap dancing and James Brown-style fainting coupled with Bob Fosse’s ’70s-era moves. Glover’s not afraid of the awkward, ugly or disconcerting, and that’s what makes his performances thought-inspiring. His sound dips into everything from gospel, soul, R&B and hip-hop to brief moments of hardcore punk-inspired screaming that sharply contrast his exquisite falsetto with long passages of party rap.
He doesn't weigh his music down with the nostalgia that's sullying the airwaves these days; his work is informed by the past, not stuck in it. While his live band provided most of the backing music, with occasional forays into pre-produced beats, his team mixes and repurposes styles as much as any electronic producer. If Glover is a hip-hop artist, it’s more in the tradition of DJs than MCs; his songwriting is a collage of other songs, creating something new out of found materials.
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At the show, he performed older material like "Redbone" and "II. Worldstar," along with the upbeat 2018 warm-weather jam "Feels Like Summer" and tour namesake “This Is America” — a punchy satire of consumerism and cheap pleasure.
As he started a less familiar song, he told the crowd, “It’s something new I’m working on” — a rarity for a performer claiming he’s bowing out of this sort of tour. The sound of the piece, more akin to EDM than most of his material, perhaps hints at where Glover — if not Gambino — is heading.
But predicting Glover’s path is foolish. With decades ahead of him, a rigorous artistic practice and a willingness to try things that might not work, his next inventions are his to discover and ours to experience.
Perhaps he wants to find a way to do that outside of consumer culture. That’s a good choice — and a generous one, especially for an artist who has no trouble selling tens of thousands of seats, capturing audiences and doing so with a creative rigor too rare in today’s pop music market.