Sunday night’s “This Is America” tour stop could have been seen as a funeral for Childish Gambino — the musical alter-ego Donald Glover has said he’s retiring after this tour and forthcoming album — but that doesn’t mean it was a somber occasion.
On the contrary, Gambino put on a show at Los Angeles’ the Forum that was at once spiritual and electric, a celebration of an eclectic discography and, hopefully, an exciting peek at what’s to come. L.A. was the last stop on the U.S. leg of his “This Is America” tour, one of a handful of dates that had to be rescheduled from September due to Gambino sustaining a foot injury. But if Gambino was burnt out from the national tour, it didn’t show. He gave his everything in what looked like a potentially exhausting feat, not just physically, but emotionally as well.
“This is an experience,” he told the crowd at the top of the show. “This is not a concert. This is church.” (He may have known that the Forum had been used as a church before its 2012 renovation.)
And it seemed like Gambino was praying to the audience, too. After a trippy light show, Gambino opened the concert by taking the stage alone, standing motionless with his head down for at least a minute in what seemed to be silent meditation. He came to life in a major way, though, with “Algorythm,” one of two new songs (the other being “All Night”) he would test out to more-than-promising results. He’d continue to take risks throughout the night, and that should be expected with an artist who has refused to put limits on himself throughout his career, whether it be music or comedy or acting.
The riskiness is fairly inherent in the set list; it jumps from soft and tropical tracks like “Summertime Magic” to the funk-infused, deceptively upbeat “Boogieman” to the hard-pounding “Worldstar.” All of that — in the span of about 20 minutes, it should be noted — should feel disjointed. There’s little reason for the various genres and inspirations to work, but it did. Maybe part of the credit should go to the crowd. Whether Gambino was running through hits off earlier albums like “Because the Internet” or crooning astonishing falsettos off the acclaimed “Awaken, My Love!,” the fans don’t seem to mind the changes in pace, and kept up with every era Gambino chose to pull from.
But there’s a lot to be said of Gambino’s presence on stage. At one point, he told the audience to eschew the desire to look cool. “Nobody cares if you look cool right now,” he said. “Cool is fleeting. I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s just fleeting.” He proceeded to make being uncool look, well, decidedly very cool. Shirtless and sweating, in the same outfit he wore in his now-famous “This Is America” music video, he owned the massive Forum stage. Occasionally he was backed up by a chorus of backup singers or a group of dancers, but often, he anchored the invigorating performances all on his own, sometimes dancing, sometimes writhing, sometimes on his knees as he poured his heart out.
And he did pour his heart out often. As much as the fans were saying goodbye to Gambino, he seemed to wanted to cherish saying goodbye to them as his alter ego just as much. At one point, cameras followed him walking from backstage, through the Forum’s concession area and into the stands, taking a moment to belt out a few verses on his own. He seemed to revel in the love from the crowd, as thrilled onlookers nearby took in what came off as a deeply personal moment.
Later, he addressed that 2018 was a hard year for many. “I lost a lot of good people,” he said. “I know it’s been a tough year for everybody, that’s what’s crazy. I wish I could change everything for everybody.” While acknowledging that, of course, he couldn’t, he tried to lift everyone’s moods at least for the moment, launching into an energizing rendition of “Riot.”
His performance, however, of “This Is America,” which he released in May to an immediately viral response, was perhaps the highlight of a night that could have seen many moments take that crown. Like so much in Gambino’s career, it was a contradiction — raw and aggressive, but still filled with joy and celebration. He brought on dancers dressed as students, like the children in the music video, who played off Gambino and even remained on stage after the star left, executing killer moves as the crowd lost it over the talented crew.
It was the faux finale of the concert: As he did earlier in the tour, Gambino was filmed going backstage and acting not-so-jazzed about going back on to perform again. But after the audience screamed for more, as Gambino beckoned them to get even louder, he went back on stage for the encore, and showed he was saving many of his biggest hits for last. He invited the crowd to sing along to previous radio mainstays, from “Sober” to “3005.” He closed out the show with “Redbone,” his nominee for record of the year at the most recent Grammys, and ended on an emotional climax, walking among the crowd on the floor and crawling back on stage.
“This is not a concert!” he reiterated. “This is motherf—ing church! I told ya’ll!”
Church it was indeed, as fans were given the chance to say goodbye to Gambino in grand fashion. But instead of mourning, maybe they should moreso be excited for whatever Donald Glover is planning next.