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Donald Glover Brings His Black Renaissance To 'Saturday Night Live'

Stormy Daniels may have kicked off Saturday Night Live with her guest appearance in a star-studded opening sketch, but last night's episode was all about a different Donald getting his rocks off.

Not only did Donald Glover host the show, he acted in nearly every sketch, then debuted two new Childish Gambino songs during his musical performances. Indeed, the man of many hats wore them all. (Overnight, he also simultaneously released a shocking new video for one of the songs, a surefire protest anthem called "This Is America," below.)

"I'm an actor, a writer and a singer — some people like to call me a triple threat, but I kinda like to call myself just a threat," Glover said in an opening monologue that satirized his seeming ability to "do anything." The one thing he'd failed at was getting cast on the sketch comedy series, despite auditioning for SNL twice, as he informed the audience before spending the rest of the monologue disastrously trying to one-up other cast members.

It's doubly funny considering the history of black players on SNL is one of talented performers, often underutilized and unappreciated, being forced to exit in order to find their true comedic voice — from Chris Rock to Jay Pharoah. The exceptions, like the undeniable talent of Eddie Murphy or the unprecedented tenure of Kenan Thompson, are extremely rare. Meanwhile, Glover's been busy breaking form on FX, where he's successfully reimagined the American sitcom on his hit show, Atlanta, with its surreal look at life for everyday black folk. (This week's "FUBU" flashback episode on bullying was one of the most heartfelt half hours in recent TV history.)

Fans who came to SNL expecting to see Glover remodel the variety show after his own image found just how restricting the form can be, but also how adaptable Glover's brand of cerebral humor is on-stage. Glover was best in pre-recorded skits like "Friendos," a Migos send-up that found the kings of trap rapping with deadpan glee about group therapy. (In the session, Thompson mimics Takeoff's penchant for barking out ad-libs to a T.)

The sense of alienation that comes through in his recent New Yorker profilewas best captured in a skit that found him reprising his role as Lando Calrissian (from the forthcoming Star Wars film Solo). Calrissian hosts "the first-ever Galactic Summit For All Black Humans," only to discover the turnout is surprisingly low: a total of three people show up. But the best skit of the night was "Kanye Place," which lampooned the artist's neverending string of controversial statements in a scary-movie setting that showed how our collective inability to resist Kanye's trolling is the real threat to humanity.

Glover's own alter-ego, rapper/singer Childish Gambino, effectively stole the show, if such a thing is possible. Introduced by Zoe Kravitz, Gambino performed a new song as tropical and summery as his last album, "Awaken, My Love!", was rap-less and funky. Though he chose to forego performing any of the hits from that album, including "Redbone," he still showed off his falsetto on the R&B/dance song about weekend love.

And when he returned later in the show for a shirtless performance of "This Is America," introduced by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), the message of American dominance and the exploitation of black lives was further underlined by the show's closing skit — featuring Glover and the show's two black men (Thompson and Chris Redd) playing prisoners assigned to work as call center customer service reps for 30 cents an hour.

It was a tour-de-force for Glover, who has proven himself to be the smartest working man in TV today — and, ironically, possibly the most overqualified SNL host to ever wear the hat. Suffice it to say, the man twice deemed not quite ready for SNL finally nailed that audition.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 5, 2018 at 9:00 PM PDT
This article originally misstated the title of Gambino's last album, Awaken, My Love! as Awaken, My Child!
Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.