The curious case of Theophilus London continues to bedevil critics. In the New York Times last month he was examined shortly, then brushed aside for a long riff on Gray, the no-wave band famous for having Jean-Michel Basquiat in it. Pitchfork slaughtered London’s EP when it came out last winter and now that he’s finally got a full-length, people are lining up to confirm the popular suspicion that the Trinidad-born Brooklynite is a scene pick, a good-field no-hit dilettante.
All the controversy is because London’s turned out to be as accidentally brilliant at marketing as Walter White was accidentally brilliant at making meth on “Breaking Bad“; London raps and records almost as an afterthought behind a frenzy of crowd-sourcing, fashion spreads, and general jet-settery. To be fair, this is not exactly new in hip-hop culture, nor is the veldt-sized ego London works to maximum effect. It’s only easy to resent if you’re really crusty about street cred and other ’90s neologisms. The Cool Kids take heat in the same way; it’s no coincidence they and London are on the same label, Mountain Dew’s Green Label Sound, which basically retains artists as pushers for its adenoidal green swill.
But at some point you have to ask even the new face of Tommy Hilfiger if the music’s any good. London has three popular mixtapes to his credit, two of which, 2008’s Jam and 2009’s This Charming Mixtape, are absolutely perfect. He interacts flawlessly with shiny old electro jams, covers Kraftwerk with soulful clarity, and throws in songs of his own like “Humdrum Town” and “Cold Pillow” which are quick studies in posh melancholy (best YouTube comment for “Cold Pillow”: “this that type of song that you have when u meet a girl and take her to the movies or shopping lol”). This Charming Mixtape, particularly, introduced London as less rap artist than a kind of radical pop peacemaker, blurring average flow (he admits he doesn’t rhyme confidently) with sheets of purple rain. He also timed its release perfectly for the 808s & Heartbreak fallout — you know that whole thing that made Drake possible.
Timez Are Weird These Days won’t change many minds; if a perfect set of references sways you, or if you hate that idea, you’ll keep liking or despising London accordingly. He collaborates with present/former it-girls like Holly Miranda and Sara Quin; the former appears on a jittery-funky thing called “Love Is Real” which was the initial title track and should have stayed on as such, like seriously. “I fell in love with a disco queen/ in the heart of the city at a bistro scene” goes the lyric and later, “we took a trip down Mexico/ and then I shot myself like Plaxico.” Now, I don’t think that’s too obnoxious but you’d be surprised how many people do. “Why Even Try,” featuring Quin, is no better in terms of haughty misanthropy: “if you think you’re special/ you’re probably not/ why even try.” Tongue presumably way in cheek.
The best track is the last, “I Stand Alone,” the chorus of which sounds so much like The Police it can’t be not on purpose: London’s likes can get a little uncharacteristic/kitschy. (For instance he’s a big Ninjasonik fan and you can hear it sometimes, sadly.) The track contains a few twitchily circumspect lines like “I run this town to be near you,” and is London at his full-voiced best; for all the hating on his rap game he really does have fantastic tone. It’s not Gucci Mane’s or anything but it enables him to double-clutch into swinging singer mode with saturnine ease. Naturally “I Stand Alone” is the soundtrack for the How To Make It In America trailer on HBO.
The album is glinty but uneven. Its relative bland casts more light on London the lifestylist who’s really good at curating a tracklist by other people but not so much at filling out his own. It’s also, if you want, a sort of retroactive mini-trendpiece on why proper albums ever fell out of favor: they’re damn hard to make. London clearly knows this; it doesn’t explain why he left genuine stunners like “Humdrum Town” and “Cold Pillow” off Timez Are Weird but it might explain why he’s already making, or has made, another mixtape. Out in the fall, it’s called Prince TL and it’s probably a better decision.
Drake – So Far Gone
Fabolous –The Soul Tape
Chromeo – Business Casual