Theophilus London is destined for greatness -- at least if you ask him. The 24-year-old Brooklyn dandy sees in himself all things -- pop prophet, fashion demigod, brand icon -- with some evidence to support those claims. There's something compelling about the rapper/singer's deliberately constructed fiction of omnipotence. (He plays Mezzanine on Saturday with K. Flay and Nick Waterhouse.)
London's first full length, Timez Are Weird These Days, sees him expanding beyond the vague parameters of "hipster rap" and "urban electro pop." Though there's enough aspirated swagger and murky sentimentality to meet the requirements for mainstream success, something is amiss. The opening track, "Last Name London," is pure runway drama, a frenetic, nocturnal serenade about nothing in particular. "Wine and Chocolate" finds him pursuing love with the same lack of intent, prattling on about "shrimp and pasta," "the moonlight" and "love in modern times."
Lord Byron he most certainly is not, but don't think for a second that's what London is going for. This is love -- for one night only. Don't ask any questions. Nothing in Mr. London's world is complicated, and nothing is supposed to be. All he wants is to be popular. "I'm not interested in the underground," London says.
Like any good showman, he's a tad paranoid about revealing what does interest him. "I'm going to come clean -- I don't like to talk about my influences. I like to keep a few tricks up my sleeve," he admits. By obviating easy comparisons, London can prolong the hazy romance, maybe even prolong his novelty into a career.
Having capably manufactured his own style, and something of his own sound -- a blend of indie electro, '80s R&B, and potent spoken word -- London has proved he's ready for market. And the market has responded. Brands like Pepsi, Bing, Bushmill's, and Tommy Hilfiger have found in him a flamboyant but consumer-friendly vessel, and London is eager to acknowledge his clout. "It's not about what brand I'm going to be," he says after being asked about his own long-term viability. "I am a brand, you feel me? I am a brand right now."
With an eye for high fashion and a penchant for dressing like a time-traveling Lothario, he's quite image conscious, and this self-awareness has bled into every aspect of his being. He says that he "wants to be timeless" and champions the virtues of an "aged boot" with the passion of a man fixated on his own symbolism. He's defiantly contradictory, obsessed with love but engaged in fleeting romances, a retro-futurist with an appreciation of antiquity but also a comic insistence on newness. If his brand seems timeless, it's because he evades the present.
But who is the audience for this brand anyway? Unsurprisingly, London's response circles back to his favorite topic -- himself: "Kids, the youth -- I want them to be inspired to do what I do."
London's coyness isn't so much intentional as it is misdirected. The references are cool and everything, but Timez Are Weird These Days puts them together in a hasty collage -- Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Byrne, Prince, Rick James -- all tossed into a blender, and poured out in thick clumps.
He postures well enough, and meanwhile, he does consider some big themes -- love, life, youth. It's just that he's not saying as much as he thinks he is. He wants so badly to be a visionary, but without having to articulate what his vision is.
Still, it's those influences, the ones he refuses to acknowledge, that bring life to the album. The production is superb, and London's sweet nothings are further accentuated by his abilities as a performer. Onstage he claims to inspire drama, and the almost improvisatory nature of his set makes this a certainty.
If he's unsure about anyone, it's you. On "Why Even Try," the cocksure London muses, "If you think you're special, you're probably not/ Why even try (why even try)/ Just living a lie (living a lie)." Whether this is tongue in cheek is anyone's guess, but he seems to take himself too seriously to entertain self-deprecation. It's like the critical eye of Miles Davis, but without the talent to back up the haughtiness.
In fact, he just seems a little weary. "I've been performing since the second grade, during show and tell, stuff like that. I've been doing this for a long time," he sighs. Of course, none of this means that Theophilus is undeservedly arrogant. It's that he's waiting for the world to catch up. At least that's how he sees it.