Donald Glover was explicitly clear about how he wanted fans to enjoy Wednesday night’s performance at Capital One Arena.
Glover, who has built an impressive résumé through restless creativity, has been rather active in 2018. “Redbone,” from 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!,” won a Grammy. His exceptionally bizarre sitcom “Atlanta” returned to FX and earned 16 Emmy nominations. He appeared in the “Star Wars” prequel “Solo.” Now he’s touring again. And what this latest tour offers is the Childish Gambino persona at its most evolved. Throughout Wednesday night, Glover referred to his performance as “church,” a sacred experience shared with the District — a market that’s long been fond of Gambino, per the man himself — as he bids farewell to the summer and, to let him tell it, this phase of his career.
Credit it to the season, but Glover’s been particularly fascinated with summer of late. After opening the show with “Algorhythm,” a recent gift emailed to ticket holders, he dove into “Summertime Magic,” from July’s two-song “Summer Pack” EP. Backed by magenta lights, the crispness of his voice not only reaffirmed that he’s no studio singer but also made the song feel like a breezy ode to the warmer months. Childish Gambino has allowed Glover to showcase his talents as a rapper and singer, and he spent the night toggling between both.
“I. The Worst Guys,” “II. Worldstar,” “3005” and “IV. Sweatpants,” all from 2013’s “Because the Internet,” are defining Gambino hip-hop records. “II. Worldstar,” a nod to the website that has gained infamy over the past decade for its cache of cellphone-captured fight footage, was an ironic addition to the set list considering Glover’s previous instructions about phones. But all of his work, including his musical catalogue and “Atlanta,” is marked by a distinct unpredictability. At one point, he departed the stage, cameras capturing his journey through the bowels of the arena and into the stands, where he performed “Stand Tall” surrounded by fans (and, of course, a sea of phones).
Opting for less-intense crowd engagement, he returned to the stage and explained that the 2015 riots in Baltimore inspired two songs: the Sly & the Family Stone-ish “Riot” and immensely popular “This Is America.” The latter became his first No. 1 single this year on the strength of a provocative (and perhaps overanalyzed) video featuring a shirtless Glover followed by schoolchildren, all while committing abrupt acts of violence and performing numerous dances, including the gwara gwara. Wednesday night’s rousing performance — which mimicked the video, save for the violence — gave Glover and his backup dancers a full stage on which to show off, all while he reminded fans to put their phones down.
Glover wanted the evening to be as pure as possible: free of social media and shared with people in the immediate vicinity. There’s an intimacy he sought to create, an atmosphere in which the brand-new “Spirits,” wistful “Feels Like Summer” and an encore performance of the now-ubiquitous “Redbone” evoke a range of emotions. He wanted to give an extended sermon.
“I tried to tell you, D.C.,” Glover said during “Redbone.” “I tried to tell you this was church.” By the end of the night, it was clear what he meant by “an experience”: something you’ll remember long after you’ve left the arena.