Live Review: Childish Gambino at Paramount Theater 5/10/14

Live Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra
all photos by Brittany Brassell

Writer, actor, director, songwriter, rapper, and all around entertainment superman, Donald Glover is a man who wears many hats. His hip-hop career under the moniker Childish Gambino hit full stride in back in 2011 with his Glassnote debut, Camp, which took his general awareness from niche rapper to mainstream success in a matter of months. Lackluster reviews saw skeptical critics questioning Glover’s dedication to the rap game, what with his many outstanding commitments all qualifying as a "day job" to a larger extent that his music project. But true fans knew that it was only a matter of time before they’d be switching up their stance and groveling at his feet, as Glover slowly started thinning out his areas of focus to give Childish Gambino the full attention needed to explode. Gambino’s first post-Camp date was a sold out gig at Neumos. The next time Seattle saw him after that was on the main stage at Sasquatch! 2012, playing for a gorge-full of people.After a year back in the studio, a mixtape to keep fans thirsty, and a swift exit from his role on Community, Glover introduced his second Glassnote LP, Because The Internet, in the most backwards way possible: with a non-album track and a series of written notes on Instagram explaining his leave from TV and some personal feelings of insecurity about his place in the scene. But it turns out, while the feelings may have been sincere, the presentation was all part of a massive meta narrative, part album, part screenplay, part social media blitzkrieg. Glover took everything that had brought him to the place he was on the scene in fall of 2013 and threw it into one of the most ambitious records of the year.

In January, after we all had a month to read the screenplay a couple times and trade interpretations of the story and interaction with the record, Gambino announced Because The Internet phase two: The Deep Web Tour. The tour website sported a faux chat room camera and introduced a smart phone app for use specifically at Gambino's upcoming shows. The social media tidal wave continued as the web weaved between Gambino, his audience, and his platform just seemed to get bigger and bigger. Glover took a while to announce his Seattle date, but this past weekend, we finally got to see what the mad scientist has been cooking up. The line outside Paramount extended past 200 people before 2pm, and for good reason too. A visual delight, crowd participation masterpiece, and a roughly structured rock opera, the Deep Web Tour could go toe to toe with the Yeezus tour presentation any day. But the cornerstone of the whole operation was, of course, Glover himself, who gave fans so much more than they ever could have asked for. In a two and a half hour spectacle with no support, Childish Gambino rocked a sold out Paramount gig like nobody's business.

As the crowd piled into the Paramount, a massive screen stood behind an expansive instrumental setup. With only a Deep Web icon in the top left and a link to activism news in tiny print at the bottom, the screen was one we were all familiar with: a computer screen. As the lights dropped, the screen turned to a Deep Web social media main page, where fans present could draw doodles or throw text messages up on the main board in complete chaos. All the while, Gambino's DJ spun a collection of pump-up gold, including Chance the Rapper, A$AP Ferg, Tyler the Creator, Drake, and a lot of Michael Jackson (also a totally unavoidable toss-out to "Smells Like Teen Spirit", obviously). The result was sensory overload - an attention deficit saturation of contradictory ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Much like the message boards that Gambino's character spams at the beginning of his Because The Internet screenplay, this one was a chaotic shitstorm. Gambino himself jumped on along with screenplay character Marcus and Gambino's producer Ludwig Goransson to troll the haters and tease the show start time endlessly. With the floor in total chaos, people pushing their way forward incessantly, and an uncountable number of dick doodles spamming the screen, the night's foundation was total chaos. But little did we know, that's exactly where Gambino wants us. The meta narrative of Because The Internet was about to come alive more than anybody could have anticipated.

As the lights went down, the DJ cut the music and the crowd went insane. Two dozen people piled onto the stage from both sides, a third of them actually playing instruments, and the rest of them decorating the back of the stage. The computer screen rebooted and transformed, first a blueprint, then a system of pillars, and then, slowly, a house was built. Then all of a sudden, we were in "The Temple", the mansion in which Because The Internet is set. Backpackers both male and female sat around in lounge chairs and on love seats, stealing from a liquor cabinet that, just a couple minutes ago, was the DJ booth, all looking bored and ready to be entertained while the band readied their instruments. Finally, Glover entered from the side and sat down at the piano, starting in on "Playing Around Before The Party Starts". The crowd goes wild, but the spectators on stage are unimpressed - the commentary is brilliantly effective. The awkward interaction between the two lasts for a split second before bass fills the Paramount and the band explodes into album opener "Crawl". Gambino steps away from the piano - the stage is set, and it's time to light it on fire.

As Gambino burns through acts I and II of Because The Internet, the visuals and onstage accompaniment follow his every word. For "WORLDSTAR", a fight breaks out onscreen while people take video from below. For "The Worst Guys", Gambino's digital palace sees three silhouettes climb into bed together in surreal fashion. All the while, Glover plays up the superstar archetype to extreme lengths, across the stage and back in a flash, in every single face the front of the crowd, acting out the lyrics in egregious detail. Album single "Sweatpants" has the crowd going crazy and "Telagraph Ave. (Oakland)" has everyone in the Paramount singing along to the all-too infectious chorus. But as "The Party" rolls around, Gambino scorches through the rap with anyone that can keep up, and then turns to all of the extras along the back wall. "Get the fuck out of my house!", he yells, just like he does on the record, and the backpackers all throw their arms up in disgust, filing off and grabbing one more drink where they can. A second screen drops in front of Gambino and his band. It's time for the next chapter of the story.

"Flight of the Navigator" begins and Gambino stands alone in the middle of the stage. The mansion in the background disassembles itself to a digital array again. The computer screen flashes "ERROR" and "RESET" and then goes to nothing, as a sparkle of blue light makes Glover a silhouette behind an opaque wall as he mumbles through the reserved tune. On the record, it's here where isolation takes hold of the narrator, and the psuedo-interaction of the Internet isn't enough to keep him warm at night. Here too, as the crowd listens quietly in awe of the beauty on stage, the digital noise seems to quiet a bit. Along with rapping, acting, writing, and all of that other stuff, Glover also has an excellent falsetto (I know, it's completely unfair) and showed it off in full form here. The massive energy of the first half of the main set waned slightly only to build up once more, as Glover navigated through the second half of the record, saving lead single "3005" as the penultimate number. Here, the extras slowly conglomerated at the side of the stage, peeking out from around the corner just to take pictures and video, just like the crowd below them. In the background, the mansion begins to rebuild itself slowly. But Glover's narrative has a definitive ending, and with "Earth: The Oldest Computer (The Last Night)", the mansion comes crumbling down and the computer screen continues showing "ERROR" until its death. The explosive track ends the main set in stellar fashion as the crowd goes wild.

The perfect partner to Glover's complex and rewarding record, the Deep Web Tour gives his message of social and digital reform a visceral visual component. It's evident that the faceless recreational sex and desensitized, entertainment-value violence of "the Temple" and all of its inhabitants is a digital wasteland - a place where there is no good, only distraction. As everything collapses, Gambino tears down the walls that may very well box in some of his listeners. The mission of the web is clear: the digital chaos of the Internet and its layers can be a deep, dark place void of empathy if we so choose, or it can be a place where we have a better opportunity than ever before to change our social surroundings, display compassion, and help other human beings. While Glover might seem an odd choice for digital prophet at first glance, he's actually the perfect candidate. With his diverse entertainment background and a self-image that has survived all of the critique of Internet naysayers for the better part of a decade, Glover has the knowhow, and he's choosing to use it for our mutual benefit.

As the digital chaos faded on stage, the Paramount gave up earsplitting applause. That applause reached rocket launch decibel levels when the computer screen came back to life with a single image: a campfire. Glover returned to the stage with Culdesac cut "Do Ya Like" with a vengeance. The crowd went wild as Gambino burned through one classic after another. "Got This Money" from Culdesac, "One Up" and "Black Faces" from the Royalty mixtape, and even his breakthrough cut "Freaks and Geeks". But by far, the best crowd response came through for Camp cuts "Heartbeat", "Firefly", and "Bonfire". It's so fun to see Glover getting the credit he deserves on Because The Internet, an album almost as brilliant as the young writer that built it. But there's something magical about hearing 2,800 people single every word of "Bonfire" along with Gambino at deafening volume, celebrating the long road he's walked up to this point in royal fashion. Donald Glover may find his way into your heart in a number of ways, whether its his writing for some of the most successful modern comedy TV out there, his acting on Community or even Girls, or his musical career that seems to only be ascending with time. But as he showed off this evening, the most rewarding way to experience Glover's work is all in one. Tonight, we got to see Glover's imagination extend to the horizon, and it was a marvelous experience.

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