The title of his second album, ‘Because The Internet’, is a handy hashtag for much you need to know about the rapper and singer also known as Donald Glover. It is mainly because of the internet that Community, the NBC sitcom which brought him to fame, became such a cult concern.
It’s because of the internet also that Glover’s other interests in sketch humour and music came to the fore, via YouTube videos of his group Derrick Comedy and a series of five mixtapes released before his debut album, 2011’s ‘Camp’. Even his stage name is taken from an online Wu-Tang clan name generator.
And the internet peppers his lyrics. Not just on a superficial, memey level of references, as on ‘F**k Your Blog’ and ‘Worldstar’, named after the viral video site, whose title the crowd are chanting before he even comes on, but also in the way he articulates with insight and emotion the sort of debates on class, race and sexuality that flare across social media every day. As a black man brought up in the projects who found success through a fluffy, middle-class sitcom before essaying a rap career, concerns about identity, others’ perception of his auntenticity and subtle racism fire his work.
He’s far too talented, complex and self-aware to let himself be just anyone’s token or intersectionality posterboy, though. The accessible, post-Kanye warmth of 'Camp', with its ’70s-soulful melodic touches and chunky, party beats has shifted on ‘Because The Internet’ to something harder, less concerned with being liked or comfortable.
And yet Gambino is still a totally winning live presence, throwing himself full-bodily into his performance over the grinding, heavy beats of ‘Crawl’ and the fierce ‘Sweatpants’ with its taunt “Don’t be mad because I’m doing me better than you doing you”.
It’s not a flashy show, with Gambino modest and focused, in plain white T-shirt and jeans. His band, smooth and powerful, are impressive enough, as is Gambino’s rap craft. For all his paranoia about perceptions, his skill is undeniably formidable - his speed and the way he plays with sounds as much as meanings, as well as his lethal wit, grab the attention forcefully. And if more low-key tracks such as the elegiac ‘Urn’ don’t always hold it as well as the likes of the furious ‘Bonfire’ from ‘Camp’ or the more bullish ‘One Up’ and ‘Eat YOur Vegetables’ (for which he’s joined by his brother Steven, aka G.Lover), his singing chops and more delicate touches also impress.
Gambino’s spoken in recent interviews how a sense of his own mortality has driven him on to make lasting, uncomfortable music, and it’s a sense of urgency that invades his performance of ‘Earth: The Oldest Computer ( The Last Night), with its fierce delivery and heart-thud beat. Howled back on for an encore, he obliges with some more freestyling and finally, ‘Lights Turned Out’ during which he rips his shirt off to screams and ravey chords as the crowd bounces deliriously. Good to know that the internet's brought us something more substantial recently than angry idiots and hat-wearing owls.