Before Childish Gambino – aka rapper, actor, comedian, producer, and more Donald Glover – takes to the stage for his first Coachella headline set, a video of Vox pops from festival attendees plays. It begins as seemingly an ego massage for the star, full of adoring fans lauding his genius. Halfway through, the tone changes and its subjects begin to dismiss him as only having been booked because he’s “marketable” and as an artist not worth getting excited about. Boos ring out through the crowd whenever someone makes a negative comment, presumably leaving the people who made the remarks ducking for cover in the huge throng who have gathered to witness this moment.
Glover headlining Coachella is a moment. The narrative around his set goes like this: he’s sworn he’s retiring the Childish Gambino moniker after his next record and this is his last tour. Ergo, this is his last shot at headlining the festival, at least under that name, which therefore serves as an excuse to celebrate the three albums he’s released since 2011. He could be as indulgent as he likes tonight and you couldn’t really complain too much, but there is no back-slapping complacency here.
For almost the entire set, the rapper paces up and down a runway that juts out from the stage and deep into the audience. There is no fancy production, save the occasional use of lights that look like laser beams, but there are two rules – following Glover’s lead to bounce, scream, and have a good time, and to put your phone away because “this is not a concert, this is church.” When some people on the front rows ignore the latter point, he barks at them over the mic: “Didn’t I tell you to put your phones down?”
You can’t blame his fans for wanting to record this moment for posterity, especially given his warnings that this whole thing will soon come to an end. That he starts the set with two unreleased tracks in ‘Atavista’ and the dramatic ‘Algorythm’, both of which have previously been aired on his ‘This Is America’ tour, increase the urge to film and snap, before a segment of more familiar tracks in the shape of some choice cuts from ‘Because The Internet’.
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“I get nervous in front of large crowds,” Glover tells the audience after ‘II. Worldstar’. “There’s 100,000 of you. Usually, I smoke before shows.” He explains that he’s going to change up that tradition tonight and smoke during his set instead, a statement that elicits a roar of approval. After pulling out a joint from his pocket and lighting it up, he decides to share it with an audience member, roaming deep into the crowd. His chosen beneficiary is a fresh-faced man who says he’s 21, but Glover is suspicious. He asks to see his ID only to be told he doesn’t have it on him. “Should I believe him?” the rapper ponders, to a mixed response from those surrounding him. He shrugs and passes over the joint, never to retrieve it after getting too lost in introducing his band and getting a taste of the audience’s point of view.
Shortly after, he’s back pacing his catwalk as a burst of fireworks signal the start of the groove-laden ‘Boogieman’. A smooth ‘Have Some Love’ follows before Glover pauses to address the crowd again. “I lost my dad this year,” he says, a little way into a monologue that’s worth hearing. “We lost Nipsey [Hussle], we lost Mac [Miller]. What I’m starting to realise is all we really have is memories.” He carries on speaking for a bit until he drops a sentence that could ruin the whole mood. “At least one of you won’t see next week,” he says solemnly, adding after a moment: “While we’re here, feel something and pass it on.”
From that point on, the set builds and builds in energy, atmosphere, and fun. There’s a snippet of a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ that suits Glover’s voice perfectly, the aptly summery ‘Feels Like Summer’, and the futuristic, poppy ‘Human Sacrifice’, another new track that’s been previewed on the road.
Of course, the track everyone has been waiting patiently to hear is ‘This Is America’, Glover’s biggest track yet. When it drops, everything lifts rapidly, its creator barely having to utter the word “bounce” before the whole field is a sea of jumping heads. The star takes a short break, running off stage to splash water on his face and hug Janelle Monáe, and when he comes back, the party spirit continues with ‘Sober’.
The swaggering ‘IV. Sweatpants’ ends with a clattering mic drop but Glover isn’t quite done yet. The honour of bringing this night to a close goes to the soft, psych-tinged R&B strut of ‘Redbone’, a final victory lap and chance to leap off the runway and closer to the fans. If this really is one of the last times we see Glover on stage then at least he’s succeeded in pulling off a nearly perfect show before he dips. It’ll be sad to see him go but, as he pointed out earlier, loss is a part of life. We’ve just got to make the most of what we’ve got while we have it. As a Coachella headliner, the man perhaps not known as Childish Gambino for much longer has certainly done that.
Childish Gambino played:
‘I. The Worst Guys’
‘Late Night In Kauai’
‘Have Some Love’
‘Feels Like Summer’