I first became aware of Donald Glover in high school, by way of a popular YouTube video called "Bro Rape." As a part of his original sketch troupe Derrick Comedy, Donald played a baseball cap-wearing Jack Johnson fan, caught in the act of attempting to rape a fellow college bro with a big black dildo and an XBox as bait. It was kind of shocking. It was hilarious. But most of all, it somehow felt relevant and perceptive.
Watching it now, the clip seems more tasteless and absurd than ever, but it retains an uncanny comic sensibility. Despite whatever accusations of political incorrectness the video received, or Glover continues to receive for songs like "You See Me (UCLA)," something about the guy just seems to tap into the popular consciousness, not just the niche-y stuff, but the stuff we all find to be funny and true—particularly that embarrassing stuff we prefer to keep to ourselves. Glover is an archetypal class clown in that he knows how to make the whole room laugh, and not just those few who happen to get it.
The same can be said for his music. Certain moments in his set reflected the desperate, ecstatic flow of Pitchfork darling Danny Brown. But unlike Brown, Glover doesn't sound invincible. He almost sounds bad, like a decent karaoke performer. He imitates everyone: Kanye, Drake, J. Cole, all without crossing the threshold into a genuine “rapper voice.” But that's because he's a fan.
When he finally belted out "Yeah, nigga!" a few songs in, the word held more weight to my ears than in any rap song I've heard in years. It felt calculated, delayed to the point where he found it acceptable. Other rappers have been called genius, but few bring the word “smart” to mind quite like Glover, as his thought process is almost visible within his bars.
Despite the crowd being packed all the way to Columbus Street, his set felt the most intimate of the weekend. And despire a fantastic visual show, I never felt the formal divide between audeince and artist enforced by every other act at Lolla: the fourth wall. Glover is a television comedy actor with an improv background. Of course he breaks the fourth wall.
But he can put it back up, too. The show even had jokes. His remix of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” had the word “Clap,” followed by “John Legend’s Voice (Keep Clapping)” on display in block letters behind him. He closed one song with a disarming slew of fake orgasms, only to segue right into crowd favorite "Heartbeat” with total seamlessness. This show was like Jay-Z’s episode of “VH1 Storytellers” in terms of production. And “Heartbeat” garnered the type of teenage girl screeches you see in old Beatles TV clips.
Glover is 28, and his audience seemed to primarily hover around the college freshman set. This is no coincidence. Childish Gambino is the most self-conscious, most endearing and most relatable rapper in the game because he's still eighteen years old inside. He has retained the id of an adolescent, one caught at a crossroads with the same degree of teenage insecurity that no one who's experienced it could ever forget. But in broadcasting that insecurity, he obliterates ours. By opening up to us, he forces us to reciprocate.
Palpable vulnerability notwithstanding, this was hardly the thrown-together gimmick many writers like to dub Glover's rap career. Warts and all, the set bordered on immaculate as Glover's confidence ballooned into Kanye-level audacity. This character arc, whether intentional or not, left me with the most stirring sensation of my weekend. Childish Gambino is no gimmick. It is not a side project. It is the highest-concept artistic endeavor that Glover has attempted yet, and it's a smash hit. Childish Gambino is bigger than one record. He is a character, written, directed and played by one of comedy's youngest success stories, and he’s the guy we related to the most at Lolla.