In a Season 1 DVD commentary for Community, show creator Dan Harmon was observing Donald Glover’s performance as ex-jock turned nerdy sidekick Troy Barnes and proclaimed that the sitcom was “wasting a star’s time. [Donald’s] gonna’ be something”. In a cast featuring a shapeshifting performance from Danny Pudi, the already well-know snide of Joel McHale, and the legendary farting around of Chevy Chase, Glover pops off the screen to anyone who’s giving the show five minutes of their time.
I couldn’t help but think of Harmon’s comments at Starland Ballroom recently, watching a sold out Sayreville, New Jersey crowd sing along to every word of Glover’s hip hop persona, Childish Gambino. It was as loud a noise as I’ve heard at a smaller venue in quite some time. Worth noting, the crowd was extremely diverse, in terms of both cultural backgrounds and—perhaps more importantly—pop cultural backgrounds.
You see, about 60% of the kids I informally polled at the show had what the typical journalist would call the “right answer” to the question of where they’d heard of Glover from. They’re huge fans of Community, or YouTubing devotees of Glover’s well-known internet sketch troupe, Derrick Comedy and their cult film, Mystery Team. They’d seen Glover do stand up, or heard that the guy from Community raps on the side, and enjoyed it enough to buy a ticket. These people enjoyed themselves.
But then there’s the other 40%. They were people who’d heard of Childish Gambino first, and Donald Glover second. People who had found him sampling seeing related links on YouTube, or been turned on by a friend. One person had no idea that Glover was also an actor. One person said “No, I hate Community”. The requisite few post-pubescent girls (it got a bit Jonas Brothers-y during pop hits like “Heartbeat”) simply answered “He’s gorgeous, and so talented”. These people felt a sensation that only a superfan hearing their favorite artist at the peak of their powers can get. This was like seeing Bruce Springsteen in 1978, or Nirvana in 1992, or Jay-Z in 2002 for them. They really, really enjoyed themselves.
This all bodes extremely well for the future of Gambino. While Glover’s acting career remains a regular gig (Community was renewed for a fourth season, and parts in movies are coming) and he has two stand-up specials in rotation on Comedy Central, music might be where the Stone Mountain, Georgia native hits big. Personable, funny, as good a singer as he is a rapper, and armed with pop hooks that will eat your earholes for days, and a fanbase with an ability to appreciate him on multiple levels, Childish Gambino is likely here to stay, and probably only get bigger.
The star power of Gambino was on full display at Starland, as he tore through at least four songs to start off the show that should be hit known worldwide, but settled for satisfying his diehard fans. “Freaks & Geeks” remains the best Gambino track released to-date, funny without seeming like “comedy rap”, hard enough to let you know Glover’s not messing around. “Outside” brings you to his humble beginnings as a poor boy who moved around while his parents did their best to put him through schools that would better him. One could argue that—while his nerd cred remains unchallenged—it’s his ability to relate to lower and middle class kids of any race that allow him to truly connect. Indeed, Gambino mentioned early on to the audience that “If you’re here tonight, you had to work for it”. Much the same as he did.
A key feature of the Childish Gambino experience is the four-piece band behind him which, besides a steady drummer, switches off between keyboards, guitars, bass, cellos and drums not just once or twice throughout the show, but regularly from song to song. With an attitude to match the fierceness of the lead performer, you almost felt like you were watching a young punk rock band, as they sweat on the crowd and gave everything they had in service to Glover’s music. Songs like the lusty “L.E.S.” and “Letter Home” were particularly impressive for the musical dexterity, but it was particularly impressive to just see the whole group go apeshit on the hard-as-hell “You See Me”.
Towards the end, Glover showed no signs of slowing down, and included a new song off his upcoming mixtape to satiate the crowd. Internet only release “The Longest Text Message” had the crowd singing as loud as they had at the start of the show, and there was no song that drove the crowd to either the concessions or bathrooms. This crowd came to sing and dance, with energy that seemed to have a few more hours left in the tank by the time rollicking set closer “Lights Turned On” finished up.
But then again, the fans of a performer often take on the personality of their object of affection. These kids clearly fed off the energy of Donald Glover and responded tenfold. Even the kids who had held him in godlike esteem for other projects found themselves unable to stop humming along. It all had the look of an artist who is ready to take things to the next level. Let’s all hope Community isn’t taking up too much of his time.