Donald Glover’s body is a thing of wonder. In time with his music, in the guise of Childish Gambino, it can be twisted and contorted in all manner of shapes, his back arching, his hips thrusting – sometimes as instinctive in its nonsensical flailing as Elaine Benes from Seinfeld, other times faithfully choreographed in accordance with South African dance or traditional hip-hop choreography.
He can be triumphantly static, soaking in a split second of mid-song silence or a particularly uproarious bit of applause from his audience, or dramatically outsized, as in moments where he stomps across his stage as if he is wading through quicksand, or on a treadmill set on a sharp incline.
It meant that while his O2 Arena gig, his first UK date on his This Is America world tour, was a masterclass in strobe lights, back-up dancers and theatrical gimmickry, each served as a tasty if ultimately superfluous accompaniment to Glover himself, whose sheer showmanship meant all eyes were fixed his way regardless of the spectacle surrounding him.
Prior to 2017, Glover had embodied a very 21st century version of a cult curio – one of the stars of the beloved if chronically unwatched US sitcom Community and subsequently a darling of the internet, whose musical side-project as rapper-slash-alt-R&B-crooner Childish Gambino was occasionally brilliant if oddly formless, his lyrics full of vaguely cringeworthy bars and a persistent genre-hopping that felt more lacking in direction than explicitly deliberate.
But in tandem with the debut of his masterful TV series Atlanta, for which he serves as both head writer and star, 2017 saw the creative blossoming that was “Awaken, My Love!”, his third full-length album and the first to feel like a properly assured body of work. A funk epic as emotive and introspective as it was dazzlingly psychedelic, it found Glover at his most comfortable and interesting, a mode only furthered by his chart-topping 2018 single This Is America, its breathlessly anarchic video cementing Glover as a tragicomic conduit for black trauma and political rage.
The Glover of the O2 Arena was very much the Glover of that video—similarly magnetic and just as permanently topless—but oddly more successful at bouncing between guises and personas than on his albums. For a setlist indebted to much of his discography, from the jerky trap anthem Worldstar to more pop-driven fan favourites like Sober and 3005, Glover somehow overcame the alienating lack of throughline in much of his actual output, his natural on-stage charisma providing a kind of continuity that isn’t always present when he’s in the studio.
Case in point: while his immediate follow-up to This Is America, 2018’s breezy and frustratingly apolitical two-track EP Summer Pack, felt like a jarring left-turn at the time, the tracks were last night a high point, one accompanied by post-apocalyptic graphics of burning palm trees and a laser-focused and chest-thumping Glover bathed in an almost supernatural orange glow.
Other highlights included his initial arrival in what appeared like a shocking beam of light, to his mid-show stroll, captured entirely on camera, in which he travelled backstage and up through the corridors of the O2, re-entering the arena and pausing on a stairwell for a gorgeously intimate rendition of Stand Tall while surrounded by awestruck fans.
There was also a brief tribute to Grenfell, Glover recalling shooting the Han Solo movie in London at the time of the tragedy, and a pointed request to his audience to turn off their phones (to which many, in a shocking move for 2019, actually obliged). “This is a show, this is church tonight,” Glover insisted. “Be freaks, smoke some weed, and love each other.”
As in his run of US shows at the end of 2018, Glover opened his first of two nights at the O2 with a claim that he’d be retiring Childish Gambino at the close of this tour, a pledge that appropriately gave way to a chorus of boos. It wouldn’t be the first time a musical act has deceptively claimed to be permanently leaving the stage at the peak of their powers, but if this is indeed Glover’s curtain call as his musical alter ego, it’d certainly mean he was going out on a high.