Childish Gambino is Donald Glover, a Californian comedian-turned-actor who has starred in the television series Community and Girls, and who has also released a pair of rap albums. So now he’s a comedian-turned-actor-turned-rapper, a shining example of flexibility in a multi-disciplinary world. Or just a celebrity dilettante with a record contract?
I last saw him perform in 2012 when he released his debut album, Camp. Back then the venue was an east London basement and the gig had a sweaty, intense energy. Now he has upgraded to the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for the follow-up, Because the Internet, an ambitious record about appetite and jadedness in the web age that proves Glover is serious about his music. But the energy appears to have dipped en route.
The problem is the singing. In the old days your average rapper looked on singing as a contemptibly sissy activity, like flower-picking or crying when you shoot someone. But hip-hop is less macho these days (though, confusingly, also more sexist). That means rappers can be more imaginative about how they express themselves. A bit of trilling is permissible.
Gambino took full advantage at the Empire, interspersing his raps with snatches of crooning, and even giving it the full Marvin Gaye treatment on a pair of songs. But his voice was ordinary, and so were the noodling rhythms his band mustered in accompaniment. An uneven set was the result, the grinding tempo of “Sweatpants” and aggressive hustle of Camp’s “Bonfire” whipping up the atmosphere, only for it to evaporate with a lurch into pseudo-moody R&B on “Urn”. Gambino seemed to acknowledge the error when he said, “Let’s do some songs with bass in,” and switched into old-school mode for the mixtape track “One Up”.
In contrast to the warbling, his rapping was impressive. He fluently switched speed and emphasis, shifting from a worldly drawl to angry screeds, mostly directed at haters doubting his authenticity – a dumb complaint, as his rap style benefits from his acting skills. The best part of the show was the freestyle in the encore, an apparently improvised number in which he half-rapped, half-sang about not wanting to write another love song but, dammit, being compelled to do so each time he saw the object of his desire. For once his ropy singing voice struck an apt note.