It is hard to remember a time, not long ago, when Donald Glover was a promising young comedy actor with an obligatory hip-hop sideline. Fans of noughties NBC hit 30 Rock first encountered the fresh-faced comedian in his cameos; his actual job was behind the scenes of the TV show.
In his spare time, Glover put out mixtapes, reputedly taking the soubriquet Childish Gambino from a Wu–Tang Clan rap name generator. “Man, why does every black actor gotta rap some?” he groaned knowingly on 2011’s acerbic Bonfire, a song that provides a verse or two of the encore of this bravura performance tonight.
That budding comedy actor, 35, now has a big shock of grey in his beard – testament, perhaps, to the pressures of being a polymath superstar who can now do little wrong. For more than an hour and a half, Glover – the producer, writer and actor of the award-winning Netflix series Atlanta; the young Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story; the forthcoming voice of Simba in the remake of The Lion King, to name just three of the other feathers in his cap – holds an arena rapt with that unpromising hip-hop sideline.
Underdog status is a very common hip-hop trope. Around the time of his debut album, 2011’s Camp, and its follow-up, 2013’s Because the Internet, Gambino often rapped about being ridiculed. As a comedy-loving African American who liked “white” things – like Radiohead – he felt judged for not being “black enough”. Camp itself was poorly reviewed, both in the US and here; the prescient and layered Because the Internet was not particularly warmly received either.
If Glover’s TV series Atlanta finally established his street cred, 2018’s most pored-over hip-hop track, This Is America, confirmed him as a deep thinker on the topic of race and the contemporary landscape. Topless, sweaty and wild-eyed, a more than vindicated Gambino dances up and down a catwalk tonight, quoting James Brown’s funky toe-twirls, and the long, glorious, painful history of African-American physical theatre throughout.
He sings in a dulcet, ecstatic falsetto and raps like a demon, mixing sex with comedy, and rage with slow jams, as though OutKast’s louche André 3000 and mercurial rapper Big Boi were united in one muscular body. Gambino busts moves for the sheer pleasure of it, even when the lights are not on him: he’s in the shadows, flexing, as The Worst Guys – an X-rated song that includes a confession about erectile dysfunction – ends with a flying V-guitar solo from a strutting guitarist.
It takes an uncommon stripe of artist to hold a vast solo show on his own, with just the occasional intervention of dancers. Hip-hop loves guest spots, and there are none tonight. A mighty funk band plays live in two pits either side of the stage; the stage itself is curiously reserved for the play of lasers or filmed segments.
There isn’t much to distract you from Gambino, but there is always a lot going on. For World Star – a song that discusses the culture of watching stupid internet videos and lampoons people who film on their phones the wrong way, he mischievously tells the audience off… for holding their phones the wrong way. At one point he goes walkabout, filmed (of course) by a crew. He ends up in the stands, crooning Stand Tall.
Although this second night of two is not 100% sold out, not many artists could make a still pretty huge throng jump around to an unreleased track. Gambino is the kind of guy who can make “some new shit” – Human Sacrifice, previously heard in a Google Pixel phone advert – an unexpected highlight of the evening, even when his set is a career-spanning overview that includes hits like Redbone, and his four-times-Grammy-winning single, This Is America.
Tonight, Gambino is clad in trousers similar to those he wore in This Is America’s rich, symbolic and arresting video, understood to echo the attire of Confederate soldiers in the American civil war. The two gold chains he still sports are said to symbolise slavery and consumerism. But although This Is America provides both focus and denouement – with its heady mixture of joy and fury, its pointed, mischievous call-and-response of “get your money, black man”, its emphasis on the success of African-American entertainment as a distraction from African American suffering – the depth and breadth of Gambino’s other offerings is equally impressive.
Just as political is Boogieman, from 2016’s Awaken, My Love!, a heavy psychedelic funk track about black bogeymen. (“But if he’s scared of me,” Gambino wonders waspishly, “how can we be free?”) One of many artistic responses around the time of #BlackLivesMatter, Awaken, My Love! was a fresh shock to observers who had finally relaxed into the idea that Childish Gambino was actually a rather good rapper, and not merely a dilettante. It was a swerve into 70s funk so complete and persuasive that no less an authority of taste than Questlove woke soul man D’Angelo at 4am to make him listen to it (as Questlove reported on his Instagram). The Funkadelic-inspired grooves of Awaken My Love! form the real backbone of tonight’s proceedings, pushing Gambino’s musicality to the fore.
Since This Is America, Gambino has sustained momentum. Last summer saw a bevy of tracks with “summer” in the title enhance his status as an all-rounder, there for the good times as well as the second civil rights movement. The most resonant of these remains Feels Like Summer, a gentle meditation on hot weather so humid it’s easy to miss its fretting about global warming. Tonight, the palm trees in the visuals catch fire.
If there is a slight air of unfinished business here, it’s partly because these rescheduled gigs resume Gambino’s previous tour – billed as his last, unexpectedly paused through injury. Quite what this mooted farewell means is left to interpretation. The new stuff, and the two songs that Gambino put out last year before the start of the tour – All Night and tonight’s opener Algorhythm, a hard-hitting return to hip-hop – suggest music is still pouring out of him. There is, supposedly, a next album, and a movie in which Glover will star alongside Rihanna. A gig at Coachella, the Californian music festival, awaits him next month after he finishes these European dates. For now though, Gambino is on his knees for the closing moments of Redbone, singing: “Don’t you close your eyes,” holding the notes. This is not the last we’ve heard of him.