By Keeyahtay Lewis
In the past year or so I can literally name two artists in hip hop that have come up and caught my interest. One would be J. Cole, the other, Childish Gambino. If you are reading this review, I assume you already know who Childish Gambino is; the alter ego of actor-writer-comedian Donald Glover. If you don’t know who CG is, then you are probably confused by this statement. It doesn’t seem that an actor-writer-comedian would make a decent rapper. Normally that sounds like a recipe for utter disaster, but in the hands of Donald Glover, Childish Gambino is poised to take over the world.
He was supposed to be at Starland Ballroom a few months back, but the show got moved because he fractured his foot. I waited anxiously, and finally on Monday 04/30/12 he made his way to a very, very sold out show at Starland Ballroom. He had an opening act, but honestly I was not impressed by them at all. I won’t even mention who they were or waste any more words on them.
9:00 rolled around and it was time to start the show. The stage was nothing short of gorgeous. Huge LED panels across the back, multicolored spot lights pointing into the crowd, I knew it was going to be a good one. The lights went down and the strings and choir came up. The intro was gorgeous and it faded beautifully into his first song, Outside. This is also the opening track for his latest album, Camp. CG took the stage backed by a live band, something rare in hip hop. 5 seconds into the show it was easy to see why CG fractured his foot and had to postpone the tour, his energy was off the scale. He followed up with another song from his latest album, Firefly. Firefly has a much different energy than Outside and it sounded great. Next up was a definite crowd favorite, Freaks and Geeks. The video for that song when released almost 2 years ago definitely raised his status and hype. He addressed the crowd before hand saying, “you should all know the words to this song, but if you don’t, the words will be on the screen.”
If you are familiar with his music, you know that violins, keyboards, and some actually really beautiful singing is a huge part of his songs. CG sang all the singing parts live, and his falsetto sounded strong. Backed by drums, bass, and a guy on either side of him that each had a keyboard, guitar and violin, everything sounded pretty amazing live. It is something special to see, these aren’t samples, there isn’t a DJ backing him, when you hear the violin you can see the two guys playing it. And the LED screen, man oh man. Sometimes it flashed lyrics. Sometimes it played pictures. Sometimes it danced with fireflies or stars, making you feel like you were really at “Camp Gambino.”
Camp is CG’s first proper album, but released a ton of music for free on the internet, his set list didn’t forget about those songs. So Fly, Do Ya Like, Difference, I’m On it, All The Shine, all of these older tracks were met with roars from the 2500 or so people who sang every word. At one time he sampled Adele’s Rolling In The Deep which was a hit for him. He played that on Monday night, albeit with John Legend singing Adele’s part. All the members of his band came to the front of the stage playing drums along with the song until his rap part kicked in. I thought the people inside would bring the building down with the energy they were putting out. So good.
A personal highlight and also an audience highlight would have to be the one two punch of Letter Home and Heartbeat. The latter being one of those songs that gets into your head and never leaves. In the best way possible. You See Me, Bonfire and Sunrise rounded out the rest of the set before his encore.
Everyone left the stage and CG returned by himself. Rack City was next, backed by the LED screen.Then he broke into a 5 minute freestyle and he was joined on stage by another rapper to help him out with this. Make Me Mad was next and finally, Lights Turned On. During the last song which is high energy already, he kicked it into an even higher gear. Lights flashing, him running and jumping everywhere, 2500 people with hands up soaking it all in. What a way to end the night.
In his music CG often bounces back and forth between knock out punches and insecurity. Live though, there is no missteps. There is no hesitation. It is clear he is a comfortable, and frankly, pretty great performer. It is hard to believe when you watch him that rapping/singing isn’t his main job. Somehow he finds time to do it all, and he does it all well. His lyrics are clever and full of double entendre. Sometimes he will spit a line and you will realize exactly what he said 30 seconds later and he is so far past that then. It’s pretty great. His band sounds tight and carry him along perfectly. He moves around with a little swagger, but in the next second he will sing a beautiful melody. He is comfortable with who he is and doesn’t seem to be trying to be anything but that; himself.
One of my favorite shows so far this year. My only compliant was that it felt like it went by fast. His set list was 20 songs deep but we all wanted more when he left. I spent a little time hanging out with him afterwards and he was engaging and funny in person. I know too that he has a few shows in the NYC/Philly area this summer, and I will be at all of them. And if you are reading this you should be there as well.
All photos courtesy of Keeyahtay Lewis of DeadBoltPhotos.com