Donald Glover is at a point in his career where he can basically do whatever he wants. The comedy community loves him, thanks to 30 Rock, Community, and Derrick Comedy; he’s attractive enough that fashion companies, like the Gap, want him to appear in their ads; he's nerd-approved, which is how the rumor of Donald Glover as Spider-Man got started; and influential music critics have come around to his rap, where he rhymes under the Wu Tang-generated Childish Gambino moniker.
In an already impressive career, that last one is probably the most notable. When an actor or, especially, a comedian releases a music album, it’s often an ego-driven move, trying to prove to the world that they’re more than just Party-All-the-Time-era Eddie Murphy. Glover, on the other hand, takes his Gambino career just as seriously as his Troy-on-Community career, which is why he’s able to sell out two IAMDONALD Tour, part Glover/part Gambino, shows in New York City in less than a day, including one last night at the Bowery Ballroom.
The 90 minute set began with a text-heavy slideshow, telling the crowd that because it was Glover’s tour, he could say whatever he wants, like, “FUCK” and “GLEE SUCKS,” and show pictures of whatever he’d like, too, like his friend’s bare ass. Then Glover, all alone, took the stage, and started his too-short stand-up set.
This was the second time I’ve seen Glover live the other being when he opened for Joel McHale at Carnegie Hall last year for the New York Comedy Festival — and maybe it’s because this venue’s smaller and friendlier, or maybe it’s because everyone was there to see him (which is something he alluded to, pointing out that tickets sold out in an hour and a half — I had to buy mine via Craigslist at three times their value), but his set was much better at Bowery. The jokes ranged from not wanting to meet the fiancées of the girls who talk to him after the show, to explaining why it’s weird when people tweet him asking if they can fuck Alison Brie because she’s his co-worker, to an extended bit that began with the cast of Community going to New Orleans and Mardi Gras and ended up with Glover sending a Twitter Message about going to a strip club (with Danny Pudi!) to Reggie Bush of the New Orleans Saints on the day the running back lost his Heisman Trophy.
The funniest segments, however, were the prerecorded sketches, including one that had Glover talking to James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, and how the two of them are supposed to catch up on season one of Louie, and another with Donald speaking to Future Donald, who claims Present Donald should stop recording music because it turns out in the near future, Glover becomes a major celebrity — and the cause of everything bad that’s ever happened, including endorsing a child molester-approved playground and paving the way for Lil’ Wayne to release a comedy album.
This was the bridge between comedy and rap, with a four-piece band taking the stage while the video was still playing. Glover, now Gambino, came out soon after, and began with “Let Me Dope You,” from 2010’s Culdesac, followed by the already much loved “Freaks and Geeks,” which mentions E.E. Cummings, Black Swan, Ariel Pink, Batman, Minority Report, Gavin Rossdale, Adele, and, of course, the cult NBC show (it was amusing hearing which of his references received the biggest applauses — Arcade Fire vs. T.I., for instance, although the line that got the loudest approval was: “I swear to God, Tina Fey gave me confidence/Taught me everything that is good comes from honesty”).
Live, Gambino’s sound is much more forceful, boosted in part by the drum-heavy band. Gone is the vulnerability that he uses on recent albums; it’s been replaced by a more boastful, “Fuck You” tone. On his albums, he’s Kanye; live, he’s Lil’ Wayne. For most of the songs, including “Glory,” the style change worked, and even occasionally added to the track, but on others, like “My Shine,” something was lost — he just didn’t sound like himself, made all the more clear when after four minutes of swag, he finished every song by sheepishly saying “thank you” into the mic.
Overall, though, the show was a giant success, with the crowd — composed largely of college students, many of whom were female, many of whom were Asian, a race that Gambino’s been known to rap about occasionally (“I’m chillin’ with this Asian chick I met in Chicago/She look like the Social Network chick/Except for her ass is twice as thick, man/Just wanna bite that shit”) — knowing every lyric to every song and holding Glover in the same esteem as they would, say, the Roots, whose Questlove joined Gambino on-stage for one song (Reggie Watts provided pre-recorded beatboxing, too). Gambino’s also become a very skilled rapper; he never once tripped over his words or even slurred verses together, a skill he probably honed coming from a stand-up background.
The set ended with a shirtless rendition of “Not Going Back,” Gambino’s best song, with his best line, “I’m the boss, Michael Scott, y’all bitches is just Phyllis,” and one whose message Glover/Gambino wanted us to take to Twitter: “It seems like they all want me to fail/But I’m not goin’ back.”
Walking out of the venue, seeing half a dozen young men wearing the official IAMDONALD tour hoodie, worn the same way Glover/Gambino does (unzipped, hood up), I couldn’t help but wonder: what’s next? Who’s the “they” in “they all want me to fail”? EP was a major step forward for Glover’s rap career — it’s his finest work and not coincidentally, the album’s that’s been received the best, by both fans and critics. But now that people are on his side, now that he can go an entire show without someone shouting out “Do the rap from Community with Abed,” now that he’s been featured on the cover of the Village Voice and in Spin, now that he can sell out the Bowery Ballroom in less than a day and get Questlove to join him, I wonder what the next album is going to sound like.
These next five years might be even better for Glover than the last five.
Photos by Nadia Chaudhury.
Josh Kurp's automatically generated Wu Tang name is Detective Ventriloquist.