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Childish Gambino makes himself at home in hip-hop community

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Review: Childish Gambino makes himself at home in hip-hop community
Gambino, aka actor Donald Glover, delivered a confident set of tight rhythm and brash displays of lyricism.
Gambino's got a strong if not perfectly pitched tenor that gets weaker when he works the falsetto.

With volumes of wit, bounce and flow and a buoyant way around the Shrine Auditorium's expansive stage, the rapper Childish Gambino and his band rolled through downtown Los Angeles as part of what he dubbed "The Deep Web Tour," which has consumed much of his spring.

Gambino, known to fans of prime-time comedy as the actor Donald Glover, longtime co-star of the NBC sitcom "Community," delivered a confident, oft-inspired 90 minutes of tight rhythm and brash displays of lyricism, much of it focused on exploring romance, pop culture and the ways in which digital media are rewiring brains and transforming interactions. Within the first few minutes he'd name-checked writer Kurt Vonnegut, the raucous website WorldStarHipHop.com, singer Elle Varner, director Martin Scorsese and rapper 2 Chainz.

During "Worldstar," for example, Gambino described with rich turns of phrase a realm in which fame can be achieved through trashy video viralness: "She at Hollywood & Vine thinking she Hollywood on Vine," he rapped, name-checking a smartphone video application, "Making movies with her friends all the time / Showing off her ass / That's a 'net twerk / But I saw through it like a wet shirt." In the background on the track, the chant of "world star" rumbled.

Those words, "world star," echoed throughout the concert whenever there was a moment of silence. The crowd, many of them students from neighboring USC, bellowed it like a battle cry.

Performing most of the tracks from his recent record "Because the Internet," Glover as Gambino offered in his first words a huge question — "Who am I?" — and worked to answer it over the hundreds of lines that followed. He did so in front of a digital backdrop that was rendered as a spacious living room with blazing fireplace, a blueprint, a midnight rainstorm or jagged bolts of lightning.

Glover's had to work to define himself as a musician, and he still hasn't earned the full respect of the oft-elitist rap tastemakers who regard street-cred above all else, skill and style be damned. Achieving a level of fame first as a comedian and actor seldom allows for crossover into singing and rhyming, but there is precedent. Platinum superstar Drake first gained success on a Canadian kids' show. (Less successful have been Joe Piscopo and Joaquin Phoenix.)

But Glover's been doing both the whole time, releasing a series of mixed tapes, singles and albums and appearing on tracks with artists including Beck, Chance the Rapper, Azealia Banks, Leona Lewis, Gucci Mane and others going back as far as 2008. The artist is now as quick-versed and assured when rhyming as he is when playing his "Community" character Troy Barnes, a LaVar Burton-obsessed jock turned zany geek.

Glover as Gambino on Saturday documented his life in Los Angeles, his romances, his obsessions through lines and stanzas that somersaulted with inspiration. During the fantastic jam "The Party," he celebrated an impending night with gleeful anticipation, predicting through lyrics debauched hours of weed, women, cocaine, music, vodka and joy. As he did so, a group of revelers gradually gathered onstage to act out the scene, planting themselves on couches and lingering in groups behind him. But just as the party got kicking and Gambino started celebrating, he stopped the music and the Shrine went quiet.

In silence, he screamed with feigned outrage: "I ain't invite all these people to my ... house! Get ... out of my house!" Boom. Party over — except for a few stragglers (as is often the case) who remained on the sofas to chill and watch the rest of the concert.

On "Telegraph Avenue" the rapper and singer, who's got a strong if not perfectly pitched tenor that gets weaker when he works the falsetto, sang of a long-distance affair with an Oakland lover as he guided the steering wheel: "With my hands on two and 10 / So I guess it all depends on Oakland, on Oakland / And I'm nervous, truth be told / I never saw me growing old in Oakland, in Oakland."

Through it all, Glover proved himself worthy of admiration not just as an entertainer but as a craftsman, one with a solid way with phrasing earned through sweat and practice. The two disciplines, acting and rapping, both involve being consumed by personas and manifesting lines, and the artist made the most of this duality: He cracked his voice with emotion on command, moved double- and triple-time through beats with brash skills.

He concluded the set with some of his earlier material, the best of which, "Freaks and Geeks," rejoiced in ridiculous wordplay, including the bawdiest reference to E.E. Cummings in the history of hip-hop.

Versatility can be a double-edged sword. Show too much of it, and you're perceived as a generalist, a scatterbrain unable or unwilling to singularly obsess to the point of perfection. There's danger too in being seen as greedy or egocentric, a showoff eager to tap dance while juggling and singing. But at the Shrine, Glover proved himself versatile in the best way possible: one gunning to explore the full extent of his creativity, be it as an actor, musician, lyricist, comedian or writer.

Or, as the masses accurately chanted: "World star ... world star ... world star."  

randall.roberts@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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