Here is a list of artists who have endorsed or collaborated with the gloriously monikered Theophilus London: M.I.A.; TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek; Sleigh Bells; Sara Quin from Tegan and Sara; John Hill of Santigold production repute; and one-time Jealous Girlfriends member Holly Miranda. Not, then, the usual cast list of supporters drafted in to help propel a young rapper up from out of the mixtape circuit and into the major rap leagues. But a spin of Timez Are Weird These Days, the Brooklyn-based rap fop’s debut studio album, reveals that to be the idea: He’s a rapper, but he doesn’t seem particularly bothered about cultivating rap fans.
Timez Are Weird These Days might be grounded in the basic idea that it’s a collection of songs that employ rapped lyrics as the main vocal delivery, but its production, grooves, and ultimate ambitions aim elsewhere. At times it’s music for a hip party, like the fuzzy, smutty funk of “Girls Girls $.” At others, London is swanking around like he’s draped in Diddy money, talking about becoming smitten with a “disco queen” that he runs into while hitting up a city’s “bistro scene” (“Love Is Real”). London’s songs usually push in a pop direction, too: Skipping over the actual rapping part, “I Stand Alone,” with its defiantly motivational chorus, does a decent impression of an Eagle Eye Cherry ditty; lead single “Why Even Try” and “Lighthouse” sound like he missed his calling as an ’80s pop-rapper. (If only London had Diddy’s budget—he could rap over Duran Duran!)
The package is pitched to appeal to a potential audience who, you suspect, isn’t debating the doldrums of whether Fred The Godson’s asthmatic flow is enough to cast him as the new Biggie or putting their lives on hold until Curren$y finally drops that third installment of Pilot Talk. So when on “Girls Girls $” London quips about a female who “got drunk, showed her pussy on WorldStar,” it’s a barb that will likely never be heard by those people who insist on uploading their home-made videos to the rap site. It’s as if early on in his career London surveyed the scene and figured that the latest generation of rap fans isn’t particularly helpful to a new hip-hop artist looking to forge a decent career, so why bother? Why pander to the comment-section brigade of the usual suspect rap blogs when they don’t buy music or attend shows anyway, being content to pimp out Rapidshare accounts and settle for shaky Flipcam video footage of last night’s show? (Rap fandom these days being not so much a vicarious pastime as something to experience half-arsed while sitting on your ass.) So instead, London figured he’d prefer to go thrift store shopping with M.I.A. and run into Drew Barrymore at parties.
Last summer, when asked about the difference between rap and indie rock fans, London lamented how rap kids are too often “scared and not comfortable in their own skin,” while he typified their indie-rock equivalents as being blessed with a “freer mentality.” It’s a characterization that’s as cliched as any—all subcultures have their hard-headed myopics, of course—but it’s one that seems to fuel his music. Not that London is some sort of hippie-leaning alt-rap artist: His upbringing is as archetypal of a New York City rapper as it gets, with him growing up in Flatbush, spending his youthful years hanging around basketball courts, hitting up a roti shop on Nostrand Avenue when hunger pangs struck, sneaking into flicks at Court Street’s ever-rambunctious UA cinema, and, as he puts it, spending summer days “going to Fort Greene Park and smoking weed.” These days he’s just graduated to a different circle.
Simply surrounding himself with indie-rock pals likely isn’t enough for London to successfully amass an army of floppy-haired fans just yet, not least because his debut album isn’t always totally persuasive: “Wine And Chocolates” perennially threatens to turn into Vanilla’s insufferable “No Way No Way” and London’s repeated insistence on crooning choruses reinforces the obviously watertight belief that rappers should only ever be allowed to sing on records if they do so hopelessly out of tune. But as more and more of his generational rap peers begin to realize that a career defined by blog-distributed free mixtapes and street albums all too often offers up zero real returns, London’s commitment to reaching over and beyond hip-hop’s core audience could turn out to be his canniest career move.