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Childish Gambino stuns with powerful Madison Square Garden debut

Donald Glover, who goes by the stage name

Donald Glover, who goes by the stage name Childish Gambino, performs at the Governors Ball Music Festival in New York on June 3, 2017. Photo Credit: AP / Invision / Charles Sykes

Donald Glover declared his intentions at the beginning of his stunning, sold-out Madison Square Garden show as his hip-hop alter ego, Childish Gambino, Friday night.

“This is the last Childish Gambino tour ever,” he said, before telling the audience that if they just wanted to shoot video of songs on their phone they should go home. “This is not a concert. This is church.”

Then, he set out to prove it with a 90-minute concert that inspired with its messages of unity and blend of hip-hop, funk, soul, gospel, world beat and rock. The “This Is America” tour is a culmination of all the potential that the Grammy-winning Gambino has shown combined with all the artistry the Emmy-winning Glover has shown in his other work.

His storytelling talent was on display directly, as he explained how he would go to Madison Square Garden to see hip-hop when he was a student at NYU, and, symbolically built the show around two new songs. He unveiled an impressive, still-untitled new song about, well, community (“We shine brighter in the dark”) and spirituality (“Oh great spirit . . . can you lift me up?”) as he was raised 20 feet on a small stage. That was immediately followed by “This Is America” — his strong candidate for song of the year, capturing the dichotomy of life as a minority artist today — which immediately brought him straight back down to earth.

It’s also no surprise that the show is visually stunning, considering Glover’s show “Atlanta” is up for 16 Emmy awards on Monday, but the minimalist stage design — essentially Gambino on an empty stage with spare light sculptures as a backdrop — made the entire evening look like a modern art exhibit. His band, for the most part, was in an orchestra pit, though he was occasionally joined onstage by four dancer-singers.

Gambino’s encores show how much he has developed as an artist. “Sober” has grown into a full-fledged Prince-ly showstopper, complete with roaring guitar solo. And Gambino was always a skilled rapper, but it’s the staging and his new delivery of his early hits “3005” and “IV. Sweatpants,” from 2013’s “Because the Internet” album, that puts them on par with the provoking suite of five songs he delivered from 2018’s Grammy-nominated album of the year “Awaken, My Love.”

This tour, which includes a second show at The Garden on Saturday night, may mark the end of Gambino. But it seems Glover is only getting started.

SETLIST: Algorythm / Summertime Magic / I. The Worst Guys / II. Worldstar / Stand Tall / Boogieman / Have Some Love / Riot / Terrified / Feels Like Summer / Untitled / This Is America // ENCORES: Sober / 3005 / IV. Sweatpants / Redbone

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