Nobody else alive can do what Childish Gambino is doing. It’s not a matter of outstanding talent in any one area: he’s far outranked at rapping by Earl, Danny and Vince, can’t dominate a singing feature like Anderson .Paak, hasn’t yet pulled together a concept album the likes of which make big waves in the scene nowadays. But the fact remains: that thing he does, that he did demonstrably, mesmerisingly, ridiculously at Coachella last weekend, is one of a kind.
I think his closest compatriot was actually Mac Miller – another rapper who, initially considered kinda embarrassing to listen to, pulled himself up through a scattershot spread of talent in basically every area. Up into something that looked from the ground like a genuine higher calling. Gambino’s mention of Mac’s name in the show’s quiet pause before an emotional “Riot” gives me hope that he thought the same. Or maybe he was just reading the room, feeling out that the crowd would be receptive to some tributes to fallen brothers – it’s hard to begrudge him that.
Donald Glover the man is brilliant because it seems like he can do everything, but Childish Gambino the artist is incredible because at any moment he might do anything. For example, he can debut a new song at Coachella with no words in English, a primitive tribal ritual which whips the crowd and striking team of backup dancers into a circle pit that feels seconds away from either transcending music entirely or descending into some depraved Suspiria bacchanal. The next minute, he’s crooning Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” as a lead-in to “Terrified”. He can livestream a Coachella set that might be one of the festival’s defining performances, and in the same day drop a visual album with Rihanna where “This is America” gets played on factory machines and “Saturday” unites a small island of oppressed workers together. (Guava Island itself, despite being – kind of first year art-student silly, unites Hiro Murai’s mastery of frame with acoustic-tinged Gambino renditions in a very winning formula). How many other rappers can institute a hardline policy that the last minute of every song has to be a knockout? Whether that’s “WORLDSTAR”‘s butter-smooth saxophone coda; Ludwig Goransson shaking up the cheesy “The Worst Guys” by slaying a guitar solo (which he emerged like Jesus to rip into at Coachella); or my personal favourite “Shadows” elevating itself to some psychedelic dream plane, wrapped around a devastating echo of “and I hope you understand”, like Tame Impala remixed the last minute of the song. On an album some would consider pretentious and overwrought at the worst, he can write a whole screenplay which re-contextualises the story and spit a line like “man is a star bound to a body inside of me / twenty million degrees, burn a man to his knees” that justifies the whole fucking thing.
This is why, when Donald proclaims “this is not a concert, this is church” to the tame crowd at the beginning of the set, it doesn’t feel preachy or hyperbolic. A multi-hyphenate like Glover can’t not feel like the stage is home. And on this stage on this night, with new tracks “Atavista” (a moving a cappella hymnal with DNA from “Urn”), “Algorythm” (a tribal-funk banger) and “Human Sacrifice” (which takes the gospel-rap fusion of “Ultralight Beam” and that last Chance album to new euphoric highs), that home undeniably takes on a sheen of the spiritual. If Awaken My Love!, wonderful album that it was, felt at times like Glover doing his best impersonation of Funkadelic, the new songs don’t have that problem. In finding the middle ground between Awaken and Because the Internet, Gambino’s invented language isn’t the only thing that feels brand new: the debuted untitled song sounds like Goransson brought back snippets from his time on Black Panther and fused them to Gambino’s unique performative energy. It isn’t a Coachella banger for the early-20s to take caps to, it’s a ritual which tethers performer to audience in a brand new way – or so you can easily believe in the heat of the moment through the watching eyes of the Steadicam.
So yeah, when it all comes down to it, this is still just music. I’ll argue any day that music is the closest thing to proof of the spiritual for people who don’t believe, but it’s still certain notes placed in a certain order; I fully expect that when/if these songs appear studio-recorded, some element of magic will be missing from them, some feeling of communion that seeing Childish Gambino take himself to church live provided. That’s a shame, but it’s nothing new: “Me and Your Mama” live takes on new life that its studio counterpart just can’t match, but it’s a great song either way. By the same token, the album when it drops will have a permanent place on my phone, but Childish Gambino’s Coachella performance is the kind I can imagine myself watching a year or two or ten from now, caught up in the moment again just like the first time, somewhere close to euphoria. And that’s all I can really ask from the man.
“Nothing can live forever, you know we gon try
Life isn’t really worth it, the algorythm is perfect“