“Gambino is a mastermind!”
This comes from a guy a few yards to my right who has been steadily shedding his clothes for the past hour. He arrived at Prospect Park looking like a banker trying to fit in at a rap show and will be leaving with his button-up tied around his waist and only a few fragments of the undershirt he ripped off of himself sometime in the middle of “You See Me.” All of us in my section have been enjoying him for the last hour as he jumped, bounced, and thrashed around with absolute abandon, stopping only long enough to ask the dude right next to me if he was Kanye West.
Definitely Not Kanye: “No, I’m not.”
Greatest Night of His Life Guy: “Are you sure? You look just like him.”
Definitely Not Kanye: “I’m sure.”
Greatest Night of His Life Guy: [Didn’t hear the answer over the sound of his own voice screaming incoherently in his buddy’s face]
Greatest Night of His Life Guy was certainly an extreme case, but he was also emblematic of what perplexed me all night. In hindsight, it was foolish of me to show up at Prospect Park with anything other than the expectation that Childish Gambino would play like a god descending from the hip hop mountaintop to mingle among his hipster worshipers. But I thought I was going to a concert headlined by a moderately successful stand-up currently starring on a quirky NBC sitcom that practically no one watches. I knew Gambino was witty and that his beats were good, but all I expected was a good time; I had no idea I would be in a sea of giddy devotees waiting eagerly for the next set of instructions: “Bounce? Okay, we can do that–does this work, or do we need to bounce higher? How about our hands? Is this soul clap sufficient, Mr. Gambino, or should we maybe wave them around like this?”
Schoolboy Q had warned me, though. Toward the end of his lethargic set, Q, foot propped on a stage monitor, pants clinging desperately to his thighs, marveled at the crowd energy Gambino could sustain. “I’ve never seen so many white people just bumpin up and down, like [bounces gently, left hand flopping in the air above his head] for, like, a hour…I need to get some o’ what he got.”
It was hard to blame Q for either his jealousy or his half-baked set. Of the three rappers taking the stage that night, Q was easily the most lyrically gifted, but he struggled to own the crowd the way his albums suggest he could.
To my left were four frat kids, a multiracial bunch, who maniacally belted out every word to opener Danny Brown’s set, performing some of his songs better than he did. As Brown stood dead center on stage, bobbing rigidly to every four count, these guys rolled through his lyrics as if they were speaking from the heart, jumping and bumping against each other, stealing glances on the punchlines–and there are a lot of them–and passing a generally infectious joy to everyone around them. Then Q took the stage, and the frat kids were baffled, standing around idly until it was Gambino’s turn.
This is what seemed particularly odd to me. That four guys could so love underground rappers like Danny Brown and Childish Gambino (who admittedly enjoys a higher profile than most underground artists do) but not know the first word from Schoolboy Q. It wasn’t hip hop ignorance. As the DJ spun a relatively eclectic set while we waited for Q to start, the frat guys knew every word to those songs, too, from Biggie to Waka Flocka Flame to A$AP Rocky. They had just missed Q.
This happens, of course. Gambino is the headlilner, and Brown and Q are the openers. That means they don’t get the same volume from the sound board Gambino does, they don’t get the mystique of a starlit night, and they don’t get the audience’s full attention. But I was still somehow caught off guard by the hip hop heads who went 2-for-3 on the night as well as by the buttoned-down 9-to-fiver who was nuts for Gambino and ambivalent to the rest. How do I account for the gaps?
Part of it is pure showmanship. What Childish Gambino, who is otherwise known as Donald Glover, has going for him perhaps above all else is his ability to perform. He brings charisma to the stage whether he’s telling jokes, acting in a sitcom, or rapping his ass off. And when he raps, he can juggle personas without ever seeming disingenuous. He shifts from boasts to self-doubt and back in rapid succession, somehow projecting full confidence in himself without seeming completely comfortable in his own skin. He resonates with his audience as the twenty-something screw-up whose parents wish he’d just choose a career and stick with it. He also represents what most of us want: the kind of talent to do whatever we want and succeed at it all. Gambino is an emo rapper, confessing all of his deepest insecurities while overcoming all of them before our eyes.
Part of it probably has something to do with music consumption in 2012. By having so many artists right at our fingertips, we may actually have a harder time finding those we would’ve enjoyed ten or twenty years ago. Underground musicians can more easily find listeners now than they could’ve in previous generations, but while the audience they draw includes some unexpected members, it probably also excludes some who are too busy listening to other artists who are also playing at the periphery of the industry.
And part of it is probably just me. I underestimated Gambino’s catchiness and really just misjudged the entire event, fooling myself into thinking I was the only one listening to Donald Glover the Rapper. I thought that in Gambino I was hearing a novelty, the guy with the funny Twitter feed from that show I love that’s always on the brink of cancellation and who I therefore probably liked as a musician for reasons other than the music. It wasn’t a point of pride, necessarily; this wasn’t one of those cases where I was working on some imaginary underground cred. I just thought I had stumbled across some good music that the masses couldn’t–or maybe wouldn’t–find. But as the lights dimmed and a swarm of people elbowed and pushed their way past me to press to the front of the crowd, I realized I am the masses, jockeying for good music wherever I can get it and finding myself, in this case, drawn to the multimedia mastermind who had taken over Prospect Park and made us all, like [bounces gently, left hand flopping in the air above his head].
Justin D Burton is assistant professor of music at Rider University and web editor for IASPM-US.