The evolution of actor/comedian Donald Glover’s angsty rap alter ego Childish Gambino has been intriguing to watch. His Austin performances have been inconsistent. A couple years back his SXSW performance was good but not earth shattering. This year’s Auditorium Shores show was so abstract it lost most of the audience. Lately he’s been doling out disses to some of the top rappers in the game, Drake, Kendrick Lamar. He’s also dropped a new single that draws a straight line back to Michael Jackson. On paper, it seemed like he was overreaching, but watching his explosive ACL Fest set I totally got it.
Kicking off with straight up furious aggro rap he instantly got the crowd, which for the most part was very young and somewhat diverse but predominantly white very very turnt up. It felt anarchic and disruptive and incredibly compelling. As the set unfolded, with Glover singing as much as he was rapping, name checking World Star then decrying Jim Crow laws, ripping his shirt off and dancing madly, with fancy footwork clearly ripped out of the King of Pop’s play book it was something of a revelation. It felt like a combination of what might happen if Tyler the Creator was someone who occasionally chose to use his powers for good instead of evil and if Drake was capable of going deep and rapping and singing about about more than just Drake.
Famously troubled, Glover’s performance went beyond heart on the sleeve. It was more like heart ripped out of his chest and thrown on the stage where he stomped on it to deaden the pain. Watching him perform, there was no question that he needs to do this, that if he couldn’t do this he absolutely would die. It’s that serious. He mirrored the intensity of his performance with on stage pyrotechnics, blasts of fire, showers of sparks, making it a truly explosive event.
This summer saw a surge of abstract R&B with artists like Sza, Jhene Aiko and FKA Twigs making beautiful dreamy watercolor love songs. That’s all well and good. I love that stuff, but watching Glover come in from the other end of the spectrum, with raw, visceral urgency and carnal passion felt so vital.
I came into ACL Fest with respect for the way Glover’s Childish Gambino pushes boundaries. I came out of it with a co-sign on his claim to the throne. He just might be the most important hip hop artist coming up in the game.