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Childish Gambino goes artsy, but eventually gives Butler Park a party

Eric Webb
ewebb@statesman.com

Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 16, 2014

Childish Gambino’s set may have started at 8 p.m. Saturday, but it was all window dressing until the rapper said “Let’s do some old school” a little more than halfway through.

The 30-year-old rapper, who some might recognize better as comedian and “Community” actor Donald Glover, dedicated the bulk of SXSW 2014’s last free Butler Park show to his latest album, “Because the Internet.” The album itself ambitiously darts between “serious rap album” and “meme-fueled performance art with an accompanying screenplay,” sort of like if “Yeezus” had a bratty kid brother with a Tumblr. And as it is with the album, so it was with the concert. Look no further than the stream of tweets scrolling up the stage’s screen before the show.

With an opulent mansion facade behind him and crystal chandeliers above him, Gambino opened the show at the keys, looking every inch the South By kid in a baggy black sweater, short shorts and Nike kicks. It was a visual metaphor for the next contrived but enjoyable hour, which saw the rapper work his way down the tracklist for “Because the Internet,” the spots normally reserved for stage banter replaced with conceptual audio-visual clips. (Sometimes art can look a whole lot like a Windows Media Player visualization circa 2002.)

Gambino’s massive audience quickly seemed to shed a few members who probably didn’t realize what they were getting into, but he largely had a captive and young audience. The rapper put on the best show when it came to the album highlights — “3005” and “The Worst Guys” — but tedium creeped elsewhere.

Perhaps playing to the crowd a little too much, most songs were punctuated with strobe-washed beat dropping and pleas for the audience to move their bodies in a vertical-then-downward motion, which hey, is super fun and engaging a couple times. Maybe not so much five or six times in between a glut of watered-down R&B crooning. Gambino isn’t a poor singer by any means, but his crackling wit and exuberant flow is his chief export, and it was woefully neglected.

As the friend I attended with pointed out to me when I complained about the tedium, it was a concept show for a concept album. Still, Gambino himself didn’t seem to be having all that much fun with the concept.

Thankfully, the opulent set-dressing eventually gave way to a familiar forest backdrop and Gambino’s announcement of some throwback tunes. The portion of the show featuring songs from the rapper’s debut LP “Camp” was like dropping into an entirely different concert. Gambino tore through “Heartbeat” with a teeth-baring ferocity and “Firefly” with irresistible energy. His rendition of “Bonfire” was like watching a pot boil over after a hour-long slow simmer. Even if the crowd of Glover-lovers enjoyed the “Because the Internet” portion of the show, this late-set renaissance worked everyone into the kind of euphoria perfect for the waning hours of SXSW.

As if to rub in the fact that he was holding back from the get-go, Gambino emerged for his encore with the comfortable crowd banter so sorely missing the rest of the show before launching into a freestyle that Butler Park ate up with gusto. He asked if the crowd wanted some something that went hard; the crowd most definitely wanted, and got, something that went hard.

The shoutouts to Austin and SXSW were generous (“I’ma keep it weird/so weird, I’m in Austin”). The freestyle mic work seamlessly bled into the wistful chorus of “All the Shine.” Childish Gambino took off his white T-shirt — the black sweater long ago wisely ditched — and slingshotted it into the crowd. It took awhile, but Gambino finally sent his SXSW crowd into the night with enough restless energy to get the real party started. And if you were anywhere near Downtown Austin that night, you’ll know no one was having trouble partying. For the sake of his Saturday night, let’s hope Glover left his self-serious side on the stage.