The night before Childish Gambino performed “Redbone” at Madison Square Garden, he was singing it to Rihanna. Twitter got a good laugh at the idea that someone as fucking cool as Rih could become an absolute fangirl, joining in the obligatory roaring sing-a-long that accompanies its first verse, her voice seemingly a few decibels louder than Gambino’s. Twenty-four hours later, he was singing the song in front of me.
Whether you were a day-one fan or a casual one, this was the moment we’d all been waiting for: Nothing compares to an arena as large as MSG singing “Get your money, black man” in unison. But, in truth, we’d been rapt since Donald Glover took the stage. Last January, the Atlanta star announced he would stop making music under the Childish Gambino moniker, explaining during promo for the series that he felt like continuing under the alias “wouldn’t be punk anymore.” “As much as ‘Redbone’ is a punk song because it’s a gospel song that’s on the radio,” he explained to the Huffington Post. “I’m like there’s only so far you can go before you just are the radio.” This was both my first and my last Gambino concert, and I was curious about how this man, who seemed to be elevating his artistry in every sense, would succeed once again in subverting his audience’s expectations. From the moment that a shirtless Childish Gambino appeared, silhouetted against a backdrop one light beam away from complete darkness, The Garden was about to be changed. Childish Gambino was taking us to church.
Shouts of “Gam-bino!” emanated from the crowd as the stadium began vibrating with the moody, massive synths that appear at the outset of “Algorhythm,” a new track the rapper shared with concertgoers before the start of his This is America tour. In a statement issued to ticket holders through Live Nation, he noted that the song wasn’t complete, but that it was important for his fans to know it ahead of time, for the “experience.” “Please do not share these songs,” he wrote. “Keep this within our community.”
For two minutes, Gambino stood still, decisively not singing over the track. “A voice keeps telling me / That we’ve got to be / That we have to be / Free,” we heard him croon on the recording. With those words, Gambino awoke, falling into the sort of broken dance moves he’d shown us on “This is America.” Produced by Ludwig Göransson, the Swedish film composer behind the Black Panther score, “Algorhythm” feels very in line with Kanye West’s gloomy use of synths, until Gambino lightens it up by interpolating Zhane’s 1993 song “Hey, Mr. DJ.” “Everybody, move your body, now do it / Here is something that’s gonna make you move and groove,” he sang. The crowd seemed to have done their homework; judging by their singing, you wouldn’t be able to guess the track was still unreleased.
As the song wound to a close, he addressed the crowd for the first time that night. “If you bought a ticket to this concert, that means you bought a ticket to the last Gambino concert ever,” he says. The reactions from the crowd were mixed: some people screamed “No,” not wanting to want to let this era go, while others erupted in applause, seemingly grateful for all their idol had accomplished. For me, there was something about this being my first and last Gambino concert that made it bittersweet: I wanted to see what everyone around me had known for years. Before continuing, he made a single request of the crowd, one which might have gone over smoother a decade ago: No recording. “This moment is for us right here, not for them out there. This is not a concert. This is church,” he says. “If you’re not here to enjoy yourself, you should go home right now.”
Later in the set, the crowd erupted to 2013’s “Worldstar,” one of his early hits and a time capsule for when WorldStarHipHop ruled video content. For a second, I was triggered; for as long as I could remember, the phrase “Worldstar” had only been screamed before events that prompted your fight-or-flight response. The crowd was getting riled up, and subdued moshpits start to form on the arena floor; a woman sitting a few seats over pelted a pair of black panties toward the stage. This may not have been the brawl WorldStarHipHop is known for, but the energy inside the arena seemed to trigger something in Gambino, too. He’d riled us up to the point that few people seemed to notice that he’d slipped backstage somewhere, with a camera crew following him as he waved and shot smiles to the bartending staff outside of the stage.
The backstage footage, as candid as it seemed, was a reminder that Childish Gambino wasn’t just a rapper or singer; he was Donald Glover the actor, too. His ten-piece band played a bluesy-funk instrumental as he made his rounds around the arena, leaving us to wonder when he’d make his return to the stage. When he re-emerged, he was among us. “I just wanted to get a better look,” he says smoothly, standing in the mid-section of the arena. He exchanged friendly banter with his fans, shooting the cameras the occasional deadpan look during moments of comic relief. Childish Gambino is whoever he wants to be: a musician, actor, comedian, church leader, and even a heartthrob.
Still, Gambino seemed like he was still processing that he’d cultivated enough of a following to fill Madison Square Garden for two nights. After his lap around the arena, he knelt down at the edge of the stage as if it were an altar, and started talking about how far he’d come since his days as a dramatic writing student at Tisch in the early aughts. “I used to come here to see some of my favorite rap acts when I was going to NYU,” he recalled. “Y’all don’t remember these times, but rap, it was like a small thing for a long time. Even when I was a kid people were like, ‘Yeah, that’s what kids do.’ Here, he paused and looked up at the crowd: “Be yourself because dreams come true.” Next, he re-imagined his Funkadelic-inspired 2016 song “Riot” as if it were for a black church, with a coordinated hand clap and foot stomp only the Holy Spirit could induce. Over time, what began as a sparse instrumental arrangement began to resemble the psychedelic production of the recording, and the song swelled larger and larger. “I told you we were in church,” he said. The crowd mimicked him, and for a minute, it did feel like church.
His sermon didn’t end there, though. After toggling between tracks from Awaken, My Love and new summer releases, he dropped a beat that surprised the stans in front of me. It was half-electronic, half-gloomy synths and drum kits that sounded straight out of 808s & Heartbreaks. This is something new I’ve been working on,” he said. It was a song that fans have taken to calling “Spirits,” and it ended with Gambino repeatedly singing the following words. “Oh great spirit / Do you hear me? / Do you love me? / Can you hold me up?” The fans in front of me had quickly learned these lyrics, and they were screaming at ear-ringing octaves—jumping up and down together as if they’d known each other their whole lives, as exalted as Rihanna had been the day before. That’s the gospel of Gambino.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.