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All words: Jeb Gavin — All Photos: Lauren Bulbin

Y’know, I’m not really sure what to say about say about the Childish Gambino show Saturday night at Pier Six up in Baltimore. I mean, I like what Donald Glover does- mostly the comedy, but he puts on a hell of a rap show, too. But considering the supremely shitty day I had, and the odd juxtaposition of youth culture clinging to the pier that night, I don’t want to turn this into a meditation on the state of rap music, or any particular genre of music.

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First off, a word on Danny Brown: no. On tape (or youtube, as the case may be) Brown is hilarious. His rhymes are reminiscent of current clown princes of backpack hip-hop Das Racist, and for some reason bring to mind a funnier, less distracted Lil Wayne or less intense Tyler, the Creator. Live he is reduced to the crassest of all complaints people make about “the music kids listen to these days.” He wandered the stage as his DJ played prerecorded tracks off a macbook, trying to gin up any support from a crowd that was either completely indifferent or completely enthralled, even though neither reaction seems to make sense. Over the open-air PA system blasting out into the harbor, Brown sounds like Tyrone Biggums. I spent most of his set wandering around asking people if Dave Chappelle was trying to jump start his career opening for Glover, turning the crackhead character into a rapper.

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Luckily Donald Glover, in the guise of Childish Gambino, came out and killed it. Touring with a full band including not one but two violinists (just in case, perhaps?) Glover was as excited as anyone to be there. Complaining the previous night’s show had been canceled due to thunderstorms, he crammed a whip-fast 20 song set into 80 minutes, encore included, reeling off crowd favorites like “We Ain’t Them,” “Bonfire,” “You See Me” (a personal favorite), and of course “Freaks and Geeks.” Another favorite track, his remix of John Legend’s cover of the Adele track “Rollin’ in the Deep,” always pleases, especially for the extended intro of Legend singing a cappella.

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Capping off the evening, Gambino and crew started premiering songs in the encore, including the brand new “One Up.” While the less-than-sold-out crowd had no reason to complain, nor did they even seem capable of it, there were moments when you had to be keenly aware you’re listening to a guy becoming a rap star as a hobby. Granted, it’s not just any guy. Glover’s comedy chops and hilarious writing serve him well as a lyricist, but with every line a punch line, trying to follow along is exhausting. In stark contrast to many rappers performing live, repeated lines were phrased and played for varying effect, but it all seemed to undercut the rare chorus thrown in almost at random.

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Glover prowled the stage, running and jumping on amp stacks, playing the part of showman–working his band, who incorporate all manner of music into his tracks from the aforementioned Legend/Adele track to dubstep to Baltimore booty bass. But as comfortable as he looks on stage, he seems uncomfortable with how easy it was to become a rapper and that makes perfect sense. He is a gifted entertainer, and his way with words makes him a natural rapper, yet it feels as though rap music itself has been swallowed whole by the pop charts.

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Anything new or interesting is already marketed and ready to be rolled out on skateboard decks along with the mixtapes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sort of synergy, but there’s a sense that the latest iteration of youthful, rebellious music was homogenized in utero and you find yourself hearing people tout the empowerment of commercial, underground lifestyle branding in the same breath they claim their version of being young and smacked in the face by all that entails is somehow unique and new. Perhaps these aren’t opposing ideas but they’re certainly orthogonal. For someone like Donald Glover, showing up at a crossroads and making it look easy could be confusing.

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