The most striking image in Childish Gambino’s concert Sunday night at the Forum didn’t emanate from the stage, where Donald Glover was performing the first of two Los Angeles dates on what the actor and writer is calling his final tour under the name of his musical alter ego.
Instead, the image came from the audience in the form of video footage showing a cheerful white guy dancing excitedly — grin on his face, drink in his hand — to “This Is America,” Childish Gambino’s song about the commodification of black suffering.
I mean no disrespect to this fellow: An instant viral smash when it was released in May, “This Is America” — now nominated for several Grammys, including record of the year and song of the year — was obviously designed to invite such a reaction. It’s sleek and sprightly, with a catchy vocal chant over a propulsive beat that could make a brick move.
But as Glover rapped about using his cellphone as a tool (presumably to record instances of police violence), it was hard not to look at this merrymaking as a grotesque fulfillment of the process that “This Is America” describes.
Sight and sound aligned so neatly, in fact, that you wondered for a second if the guy might’ve been a plant — a storytelling device in keeping with the meticulous visual flair Glover has demonstrated as the mastermind of the stunning FX series “Atlanta.”
But why take pains to arrange what was sure to happen naturally?
As he has been when asked to explain “This Is America” (whose willfully provocative music video has racked up nearly half a billion views on YouTube), Glover has been pretty opaque regarding his reasons for retiring the project he began a decade ago. Back then his alter ego resembled a Hollywood lark, yet “Atlanta” rightly gave Glover an auteur’s standing; today he’s viewed as part of a young African American creative vanguard along with Beyoncé and “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler.
“You bought a ticket to this show, which means you bought a ticket to the last Childish Gambino tour ever, and I love you for that,” he told the crowd Sunday, before adding that what fans were in for wasn’t a concert but “an experience.”
“This is church,” he said.
Whatever his thinking, the production lived up to that billing, at least as a kind of dramatic enterprise.
Dressed in his costume from the “This Is America” video — shirtless with high-waisted trousers — Glover danced like a man touched by the spirit; occasionally a dozen or so singers appeared behind him to lend choral vocals to a set that mixed fresh material (including one song he suggested he hadn’t finished) with cuts from his albums “Because the Internet,” from 2013, and 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!”
As suits a filmmaker, the lighting was sophisticated, with lasers that strobed in time to the music; “Feels Like Summer” was accompanied by a gorgeous and forbidding video depicting palm trees on fire.
And at one point Glover left the stage, a camera crew trailing him, to venture through the Forum’s backstage hallways and pop out suddenly into the audience, where he sang a bit of his song “Stand Tall” as a live shot framed him as handsomely as on television. (Glover barred The Times from photographing Sunday’s concert — one more indication of the control he seeks to exert over his presentation.)
Musically, the concert was less impressive, which raised the possibility that Glover is done with Childish Gambino because his artistic reach now exceeds his grasp as a rapper or songwriter — or indeed as a touring act expected to go out and play all the old stuff.
“This Is America” throbbed with purpose. And “Redbone,” Childish Gambino’s left-field 2017 hit, had a queasy sensuality that Glover drew out by dropping to his knees.
But other tunes from “Awaken, My Love!” came close to ’70s-funk karaoke (albeit powered by a killer road band); you heard Glover’s worship of Prince and Funkadelic but no clear motive for reanimating the creeping grooves and grimy guitar riffs.
And his older songs felt even more derivative, in this case of work by Drake and Kanye West, and clunkier too. Glover set the chipper pop-rap number “3005” at an almost comically quick tempo, as though he were racing to get through this lightweight artifact from the goofier days he might like to leave behind him.
Not that the audience shared his impatience. As shallow as “Atlanta” is deep, “3005” got the room bouncing even more than “This Is America” did — something else Glover could probably have predicted.