The rap concert is an unnatural phenomenon. Rap is a Frankenstein genre, cobbled together from samples and beats and lyrics culled from life, other songs, other genres. Beats are made. Rhymes are written. And then all is combined and mixed in a studio. The system is not unlike any other style of music; however, rap differs because the subsequent components of a rap record are rarely organic. Rap has more in common with the electronic- and DJ-fueled genres, yet rappers perform in traditional concert venues because they are unshackled, unpredictable and the beating heart of the Frankenstein monster. For all its posturing, rap music is less a spontaneous creation than a practice of restraint and calculated excess. Rap concerts have a tendency to take on a life of their own, for better and for worse. The Wu-Tang Clan created the most influential rap album of the last twenty years, yet I attended a concert of theirs in 1997 that I recall as perhaps the worst exhibition of “music” I’ve ever seen. The phrase herding cats might as well have been “herding stray Wu-Tang Clan members.” ODB just didn’t show up. Method Man was late and the rest treated the performance like a freestyle battle gone horribly wrong.
To further confuse the balance of spontaneous art and beats/production, the platform supports vanity entertainers with regularity. This introduces that final silent component of rap music, reputation and swagger. How else can you explain Shaq Diesel going Platinum? That’s one million copies sold. Allan Iverson, Chris Webber, Ron Artest, Roy Jones, Jr. have also all tested the rap game with lesser success. Therefore, at face value, it’s easy to be skeptical when Donald Glover, a comedian and notable TV actor and writer (for 30 Rock), releases a record. A quick sample of his Camp LP dispels any questions you may have had about his intentions (even more so when you learn that he’s been creating beats and writing music for more than six years, having already released three independent records prior to Camp). Glover is a capable beatsmith and MC (even if he borrows much of his style from the Kanye-school of swagger) but where he excels is his creative wordplay and rhymes. He alternates brash with hyper-sensitivity. His songs are laced with pop-culture references and cynicism regarding the genre’s predictable tropes. Personal themes of childhood bullying, alcoholism and failed relationships are littered throughout. As Childish Gambino, Glover is a self-aware artist that refuses to break the “Fourth Wall” – to borrow a term from film theory. Despite being an excellent stand-up comedian, the Renaissance man in Glover refuses the audience a campy wink-wink of acknowledgment. What he’s doing is serious business and he’s doing his damnedest to ensure that he’s accepted as an artist who excels according to the rules of each of his endeavors. He does not succeed as a rapper because he is an actor. He does not excel as an actor because he is a comedian. Each talent exists in a separate vacuum, a truly remarkable feat of career management.
Danny Brown opened. While I’m warming to Brown’s lyrical style (which seems to be a mish-mash of Das Racist and Shabazz Palaces), his strength is also his creative use of humor. The performance, however, lacked energy. Other than the moment when he pulled a fan up on stage (a hipster Chris Elliott), Brown and his DJ seemed oblivious to the crowd. Hipster Chris Elliott rapped along the entire time and Brown lent him the microphone to punctuate particular phrases. Still, the unusually attentive crowd (for an opening act) ate it up.
When the very first beat from “Outside” dropped, Glover turned the attentive but lax sold-out crowd at Stage AE into a fist-pumping party. His stage act is frantic and high-energy. “First time in Pittsburgh. We gotta do this right,” he proclaimed early on, and throughout the show Glover beckoned the audience to keep the pace. Backed by a full band, the music filled the space with more than just an obligatory distorted bassline. Two drummers, guitar, keyboards and the occasional violin. The musicianship transcended a standard hip-hop show.
I’d always wondered about the identity of the Childish Gambino fan demographic. These are things about which only those who write about music wonder. And as I nodded along with the beat appreciatively, I couldn’t help but take an unofficial and superficial survey of the demographics. Those most enraptured by the performance were A) Young; B) Twenty-something; C) Caucasian; and D) Female. Not what I had anticipated. If I’d taken a picture of the crowd you’d never have guessed the act. It was a cross-section of Pittsburgh youth culture. Glover requested a roll call of minority females in the crowd before “You See Me (UCLA)” and had to search to locate a few of them, including the one Indian girl who Glover called out for hiding from him. Welcome to Pittsburgh, Donald Glover.
Anyway, back on track. Surprised as I was by the overwhelming reception for the Childish Gambino act (as I mentioned, a large, sold-out venue), I was more surprised by the knowledge of his back catalog, all independently released. Chalk it up to an Internet-savvy generation with too much time on their hands. I don’t particularly have an excuse other than having mild OCD. Also I don’t sleep much. While Camp favorites “Bonfire” and “Heartbeat” received raucous welcomes, it was tracks from his older releases that lit a fire with the audience. Much of the crowd knew the words “Freaks and Geeks” and “Culdesac” and sang right along, prompting Glover to offer the microphone to the crowd to jump in during the chorus on a number of occasions.
While I should have just been proud of Pittsburgh for coming out and actively supporting a quality artist, hip-hop or otherwise, I was still just a little confused. Who are these people? The last notable hip-hop act to come through Pittsburgh was Shabazz Palaces and I doubt more than a handful of this crowd knew Shabazz at all. I don’t intend this as a knock on Glover or the fans of his music, just that Childish Gambino has attained a crossover appeal that’s difficult to label. Is it because Glover is unintimidating? Small in stature? That he’s “hard,” but not too “hard?” That he raps about universal human conditions rather than drug abuse, objectification of women and violence? Or is it merely that he tells jokes and plays Troy Barnes on Community?
And though the comparison lacks realistic connectivity, I couldn’t help lament that fact that if all of these people watched Community the show wouldn’t be on such tenuous ground. But, again, I digress. The only explanation for his widespread appeal is that despite Glover’s ability to maintain separation of music and television stardom, he is incapable of escaping (nor does he necessarily want to) the connectivity to the global idea of “fame.” Music and image, after all, go hand-in-hand, like beats and rhymes. And fame can be wielded in many different ways. The only way for Glover to continue to succeed independently in TV, music and comedy is to continue pretend that he is three different people, each operating freely, without the baggage of his alter egos. Fans will continue to be drawn in by the idea of his fame as long as he pretends to recognize that it doesn’t exist. But however it is you’re doing all that you’re doing, Troy Barnes/Donald Glover/Childish Gambino, don’t stop doing it because you are a true entertainer.