Donald Glover has tried to stay at odds with his hip-hop persona.
In his non-musical life, Glover is a star stand-up comedian, an acclaimed actor (playing Troy Barnes on NBC's "Community") and an Emmy-winning writer ("30 Rock"). As a rapper, calling himself Childish Gambino, he casts himself as outsider. The line -- the punchline, in most cases -- is usually drawn by race. He's "the only black kid at a Sufjan concert"; he doesn't know what the projects are ("Man, that sounds fancy to me"); he gets "culture shock at barber shops cause I ain't hood enough / We all look the same to the cops, ain't that good enough?"
But with the critical success of "Camp," the debut Childish Gambino full-length, and now some sizzling-hot live shows, the outsider role is becoming a harder sell. At some point, he's going to look pretty silly standing before a sold-out crowd of crazed, ecstatic fans -- as was the case Wednesday night at Chicago's Riviera Theater -- barking, "Why nobody wanna admit they like me just a little bit?"
On record, Childish Gambino is self-conscious and swagger-free, heartbreaking and hilarious, much like Kanye West's debut. He carves out a space for the geekier and less gangsta side of referential hip-hop. On stage, he's a bit more butch. Revving from hoodie opener to shirtless encore in just under 90 minutes, Glover alternated between the presence of a slam poet -- physicalizing his flow with cat-like moves during "All the Shine," then going totally timid for "L.E.S." -- and Lil Wayne with the lid off -- leaping and shadow-boxing and threatening to do some damage on the rocking "Freaks and Geeks" and the explosive finale of "Lights Turned On." "I ain't the coolest, but I know I got passion," he offers as humble defense, then he pounds the period into the exclamation point, growling and adding, "I got passion!"
This alternating current crackles on a stage often draped with pastoral imagery -- softly illuminated trees in the back of the stage and a video screen frequently showing misty fields and silhouetted forests, both usually dotted with languid fireflies. Glover's five-piece band of multi-instrumentalists juices things dramatically; two of the players sawed on violins for nearly half the show, and sometimes four of them were contributing to the music's frequent martial rhythms. For the rock riffs of "Bonfire," all six banged heads in the center of the stage.
When his hip-hop started lighting up online, it was easy to picture Glover as someone who didn't just name-check Batman or "Tron" for effect -- this was a guy who reads it and watches it. As the legions of fans multiply, going as berserk as they did Wednesday night, Glover will face his Kanye moment: Does he keep emulating The Throne, or does he finally stage a coup?