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Childish Gambino – Gorilla, Manchester 05/02/14

06 February 2014, 14:30 | Written by Joe Goggins

Right off the bat, I’ll get my two major hip hop show pet peeves out of the way. First off, the lack of a live band, as far as I’m concerned, normally relegates a performance to karaoke. As impressive as it might have been to see the full surviving lineup of the Wu-Tang Clan play in town last year, for example, there’s ultimately no avoiding the fact that it’s eight guys shouting over a beat whilst trying not to bump into each other on a claustrophobically busy stage.

My other gripe is the usually unnecessary inclusion of a hype man, on hand to finish the headline act’s lines, and in the process remove much of the sense of flow. It’s pleasing, then, to see Donald ‘Childish Gambino’ Glover arrive (on time!), under the Oxford Road railway bridge, with a four-piece backing outfit in tow; they help flesh out an opening rendition of “The Crawl” that takes the recorded version’s aggression and transforms it into a striking viciousness.

I was pretty critical, on this very site, about Glover’s second full-length, Because the Internet; there was a decent hip hop record in there somewhere, but it was lost amongst the album’s trivial stab at conceptualisation and overwrought runtime. I’d also listened to his first LP, Camp, a collection of rudimentary beats and nonsensical lyrical choices, and I couldn’t help but feel that Glover’s interest in making hip hop records seemed pretty superficial. Because the Internet, consumed aside from its many multimedia accompaniments, is actually a perfectly amiable attempt at Frank Ocean-channeling soft hip-hop; it was Glover’s insistence that you were listening to something more than that, in artistic terms, that infuriated me when I came to review it.

He’s already an accomplished performer, of course, having played Troy Barnes for four and a half seasons of Community, and provided one of many vehicles for Lena Dunham’s liberal rich-girl guilt on Girls, but his mastery of a live crowd is genuinely impressive tonight; when he drops the hard-hitters – “Pink Toes”, “Earth: The Oldest Computer” and “Worldstar” included – there’s a real vibrancy to the energy with which the audience respond.

Outside of that, though, he leans towards tracks that infuse rap with Channel Orange’s urban pop sensibilities; he segues between singing and rhyming in admirably smooth fashion, but the Drake-esque croons that underscore “The Worst Guys” and “Telegraph Ave” don’t ignite the room in quite the same way that the album’s heavier cuts do; it’s less that there’s no space for light and heavy to exist side by side, and more that the former usually tests the patience of a hip hop crowd looking for something heavy enough to jump to.

Tonight’s defining moment comes not when Glover drops hit single “3005”, nor when he opens the encore with a scintillating freestyle; instead, it’s when he assures those gathered, early on, that “this isn’t the Deep Web Tour – we’re gonna come back with that shit.” The admission that this performance isn’t Glover’s keenly-rehearsed, conceptual live show – and instead merely an eighty-minute run through a random assortment of his material – points to the fact that he’ll surely be more comfortable in bigger venues, once he’s more established.

Gorilla’s cramped live room provides a fine backdrop for cuts that bring out the crowd’s boisterous side, but Glover’s mellower efforts are lost, a little, in translation; tonight’s performance is more than enough to command respect, in terms of his musical credentials beyond his other artistic pursuits, but the clear insistence upon a blend of hip hop and R&B still feels like a compromise, no matter how tight the live band is.

Photo by SARA AMROUSSI-GILISSEN from Shepherd’s Bush Empire. See the full gallery here.

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