On Wednesday, Sept. 19, Donald Glover stepped onto the Capital One Arena stage in Washington D.C. for the last time as his musical alter ego, Childish Gambino. “This is not a concert,” he said to the roaring crowd. “This is church.”
Dressed only in white pants, which have now become his quintessential “This Is America” look, Gambino opened the concert with “Algorythm” – an unfinished track (one of two sent to fans attending the tour) from his highly anticipated final album.
From releasing his first mixtape Sick Boi in 2008 to Summer Pack in 2018, Childish Gambino has shown more evolution in 10 years than most artists do their entire lives. While Sick Boi was Gambino’s first experiment, he first came to public attention in 2011 with “Freaks and Geeks” from EP, his first extended play. “Freaks and Geeks” serves as a hype track which, like its title suggests, is chock full of references to art and pop culture. One lyric in particular that stands out to me is, “I am runnin’ this bitch, you are just a dog walker.”
Gambino produced EP with Ludwig Göransson, who has since been a constant part of all of the artist’s musical forays, including his biggest success yet, ”Awaken, My Love!” and his upcoming fourth studio album.
EP was closely followed by the release of Gambino’s first studio album, Camp. The rap album, which revolves around his personal experiences as a soft, funny, nerdy rapper struggling to be taken seriously, had a few hit singles like “Bonfire” and “Heartbeat” that went gold and platinum but received neither the critical nor commercial acclaim of his later releases.
This first album led to Gambino’s entrance into the charts. But, while it is heartfelt and cleverly written, it seems a little juvenile when compared to these later releases.
Yet his monologue at the very end of the album, appended to the last track “That Power,” hints at an emotional maturity that would only be revealed fully as he evolved into the astronomically successful musician he is today.
Because The Internet, Gambino’s next studio album released in 2013, is perhaps when his more experimental side first came to the forefront.
The 19-song album is divided into multiple segments, each with a slightly different sound, seamlessly alternating between genres like rap, R&B, ambient, synth and alternative music.
“I. The Worst Guys” features Chance the Rapper and includes an unexpected electric guitar solo in its final minutes, and “III. Telegraph Ave. (‘Oakland’ by Llyod)” showcases Gambino’s smooth vocals, Göransson’s early experiments mixing tribal sounds with contemporary music and a disturbing but entrancing video directed by Hiro Murai.
Murai would later collaborate with him on many other projects, including 2018’s hit music video “This Is America” and Glover’s widely acclaimed TV series Atlanta.
The album’s biggest hit singles, “V. 3005” and “IV. Sweatpants,” combined both Gambino’s now-signature, cleverly worded wisecracks with smooth music, went Platinum and Gold in the U.S., respectively. The album itself was certified Gold in America, Silver in Britain and topped Billboard’s rap album charts that year.
His next EP, Kuai (2014), continued the tradition of topping rap, R&B and hip hop charts. With this release, Gambino leaned into his alternative R&B sound with melodic vocals, electronic music and a general beachy vibe.
The single “Sober” (a personal favorite) added another feather to Gambino’s hat of thought-provoking and narrative-driven music videos. Kuai remains one of Gambino’s most popular EPs among fans to this day, strengthening the fact that Gambino’s music never gets stale.
The release of “Awaken, My Love!” in 2016 took Gambino’s long-term fans, as well as the entirety of music listeners, by storm with its complete exit from anything the artist had ever produced.
In much of the album Gambino sings with almost impossible-sounding pitch manipulations and falsettos, which, contrary to expectation, were not achieved by post-production.
Even some of the background music that sounds like real instruments are actually just vocal sounds and clicks recorded by the artist using vocoders. “California” is full of these vocal samples.
While the album still features the artist’s trademark smooth voice, it mixes it with gospel music in “Have Some Love”, and broken shrieks in tracks like “Terrified” and “Me and Your Mama,” giving it an ephemeral yet haunting feel that stays with the listener long after the end of the album.
The album created its own unique genre by combining 80s-inspired psychedelia, synth, funk, soul, R&B and jazz sounds into an indescribable, polarizing work of art. Its innovative production makes it as much of a magnum opus for producer Ludwig Göransson as it is for Gambino.
“Awaken, My Love!” was nominated for Grammy Album of the Year. The single “Redbone” won the Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance and was also nominated for Record of the Year (which it arguably should have won).
Gambino’s latest release, the 2018 EP, Summer Pack, once again in true Childish Gambino fashion, shifts its tone from his previous work. This is exhibited by the highly-acclaimed single “This Is America,” with its jarring and poignant video about gun violence and racism in the country.
This time Gambino focuses his energies into two tracks – “Summertime Magic” and “Feels Like Summer” – two breezy, poppy songs. The head-bopping EP solidifies Gambino’s brand as an ever-evolving musician liberated from the confines of genre.
In his ongoing This Is America tour, we see Gambino perform songs from his diverse palette of music, effortlessly switching from chill, danceable tracks to gritty rap to atmospheric gospel music. He treats the audience to an all-engulfing experience that leads them through the artist’s own evolution and self-exploration.
At the bittersweet end of the concert, every fan of the artist was left satisfied yet craving more as the artist left the Washington D.C. stage as Childish Gambino for the last time.
While this is his last tour, we still have his fourth and last studio album to look forward to. If the EP and the incomplete singles sent to concert goers, “Algorythm” and “All Night,” are any indication of what this album will sound like, it will have an electronic pop undercurrent to it, mixed with the subversion we have come to expect from the artist.
And because the internet is forever, we will always have the seven mixtapes, three EPs and three albums (and the one still to come) that Donald Glover has created in his incredible and prolific decade as musical alter-ego Childish Gambino.