At first glance, this weekend's one-night-only pairing of Erykah Badu and Childish Gambino at the Greek Theater might seem a little incongruous.
After all, the two artists hail from different scenes and different eras. Badu's highest-selling album Baduizm was released over 17 years ago amid the then-nascent neo-soul movement, while Gambino's star only recently rose with his sophomore album Because the Internet—and if he falls into any movement at all, it probably begins with an “http://.”
But this Friday's show in Berkeley is an inspired pairing, especially considering the average fanbase of each act. Imagine, if you will, a typical teenage Childish Gambino fan looking up from Snapchat for five minutes to be mesmerized by Badu's regal presence, with a full backing band, all dominant elegance and poise. And picture a late-thirties Badu fan, who might have stopped seeking out new music after graduating college years ago, discovering the playful wit and wordplay of a charismatic rapper that they'll be open-minded about because, hey, he was on Community.
Badu, of course, is incredible live. I saw over 100 shows in 2010, and her set at Outside Lands ranked right at the top. As if by ESP, her 11-piece band segued smoothly between each number, weaving quotes of Afrika Bambaata's “Planet Rock,” Freddie Hubbard's “Red Clay” and Graham Central Station's “Happy to See You Again” throughout the set. Badu herself hovered above all of it, completely in command of the arrangements, wresting sweetness, sorrow, elation and drama from every song. The entire show felt timeless.
As his fans know, timelessness is not Gambino's stock in trade. Because the Internet is very much a modern-culture product, referencing E-Vites, Instagram, hashtags, email, texts, friend requests, Twitter and myriad other accoutrements of online life. Gambino quotes the “Ain't Nobody Got Time for That” meme, samples Kanye's infamous “You Ain't Got The Answers, Sway!” outburst, and even manages to turn the Worldstar chant—the soundtrack to hundreds of viral fight videos—into a bona fide chorus.
All of this would be alienating to a different generation, except that Gambino sells it so well—an extroverted rapper with introverted lyrics, the Court Jester to Badu's Queen. He and Badu both experiment heavily production-wise; eschewing rote beats, Badu's latest New Amerykah albums have a futuristic sound, much like the wild Yeezus-like variety present on Because the Internet. And both keep hip-hop as an anchor. Badu positions hip-hop as a ruling entity, bigger than religion and the government, while Gambino, in a now-legendary radio freestyle, wants to dig deeper than rap.
There's the whole “legitimate artist” vs. celebrity thing going on in this coupling, too. Gambino isn't related to Danny Glover, but he's still a famous actor. In a post-Drake world, this so-called inauthenticity isn't as much an issue, although purists from Badu's audience would likely cry foul. But as Badu herself once said: “Be you. Make sure you’re saying something when you’re saying something. It’s important to sound like you, to feel like you, to be like you. Be you.”
Love him or hate him, there's no denying that Childish Gambino's found his own voice (even while covering Baduizm's "On & On," a-ha!). Only time will tell if he hones that voice to grow into a towering legend like Erykah Badu, but for now, having both artists on the same bill is a perfect alchemy of unlikely talents.