Trinidad-born rapper Theophilus London: Mastering Self-Invention Then and Now

JON CARAMANICA, in this article in The New York Times, looks at the rising career of Trinidad-born rapper Theophilus London.

In the pseudodocumentary “Downtown 81,” Jean-Michel Basquiat is captured living out a day in the life of a downtown New York artist: heavy on hard luck, hoping someone will buy a painting of his to keep him afloat, but rich in friends and immersed in a circle full of musicians, artists, beautiful women and more.

If someone filmed a version of that movie today, in the downtown of 2011, its protagonist would have slightly different struggles. He’d be given tables at trendy nightspots so that he and his friends could drink free as they serve as scenery for the poor bridge-and-tunnel saps who pay full price for bottle service. He’d be selling cool-hunting tips to marketing firms. He’d have a Tumblr. Like Basquiat, who made an image for himself as furiously as he made paintings, he would have some sort of creative talent that provided a raison d’être and that made all the other stuff feel less oppressive.

In short, he’d probably be a lot like Theophilus London, the young rapper, for whom rap is a pretense, the ballast that keeps his image-making ship sailing.

Last week he released his major-label debut, “Timez Are Weird These Days” (Warner Brothers), which is surprisingly strong for someone who’s been making marginal music for years. Mr. London’s early mixtapes and singles were underfed, not doing enough to compensate for what he fundamentally lacks as a performer. But by any measure “Timez Are Weird These Days” is fed. Mr. London is the rare artist whose major-label work is a huge improvement on his independent releases; he can’t do it alone. The album is full of catchy, quick-tempo dance-floor-oriented hip-hop and pop that is produced so lushly it almost obviates the need for his presence as anything other than the cover model.

Thursday night at the Bowery Ballroom he gave the album flesh, if not depth, performing with a full band that sometimes deigned to play its instruments but just as often simply stood onstage looking fantastic, a mélange of downtown cool. Nervous-looking photographers on the side of the stage felt more like a commentary on celebrity culture than part of the practice of it. Before “Last Name London,” he announced, “This next song, I swagged it out on ‘Jimmy Kimmel’ a few nights ago.”

Given that Mr. London added little to this show beyond concept engineering, he made a lot out of very little — a mess, but a fantastic mess. “My album is out,” he said. “I’m going to dirty up your couch tonight.” But this mundane almost-concert was fitting for an artist — or just a person — who had a collaborative relationship with the shoemaker Cole Haan before he had an album in stores, who speaks in interviews about being more interested in having a future inbranding than in music.

Mr. London cuts an impressive figure. He’s tall, slim and handsome and has a phenomenal way of putting together an outfit. Here he was wearing a shimmery silver tank top under a camouflage jacket, and a black cap with “GG$” stitched onto it, after his song “Girls Girls $.” Often — as on his album cover — he’s spotted in a wide-brimmed Borsalino that he bought in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, hat store that caters to Orthodox Jews.

But let’s be honest: The Basquiat-era scenester Fab 5 Freddy worked the Borsalino look three decades before Mr. London did. Mr. London’s pastiche is effective, but it’s still just pastiche. One of the things he’s borrowing from, consciously or unconsciously, is the self-invention enacted by Basquiat, embodied best in Basquiat’s participation in the band Gray. The best named of the no-wave bands that populated downtown in the late 1970s and early ’80s, but by no means the best, Gray was an atonal footnote, included on the “Downtown 81” soundtrack, but little heard outside of that.

A few hours before Mr. London did his site-specific art piece on the Bowery Ballroom stage Thursday, Gray’s current incarnation played around the corner at the New Museum, its first performance in about two decades.

At this show too, part of the museum’s Get Weird music series, ideas trumped sound. Gray is down to a duo now, Nick Taylor and Michael Holman, and last year it released an album, “Shades Of … ” (Plush Safe), its first, with bits of old recordings and equally obtuse new ones.

Playing in the museum’s basement, a sterile room with the feel of a lecture hall, the pair worked through some of these compositions, sometimes charmingly, sometimes maddeningly. Like much no wave, which was more about perversion of expectation than execution, this show was careful to mystify. Sometimes Mr. Taylor played meandering cabaret-ish songs with a guitar. Some songs sounded like novelty records Dr. Demento might enjoy. But just as unlikely as the misses were the hits. There was an operetta — on which the duo was joined by two opera singers and three impressive drummers — about a suicide hot line. And on “Gauntlet of Wriggley’s” Mr. Holman sat at a lone snare drum covered in strips of masking tape, then pulled them off and reapplied them, creating glorious ruptures.

Throughout the show there were video interludes with reminiscences by Glenn O’Brien, a writer and a producer of “Downtown 81”; Suzanne Mallouk, a girlfriend of Mr. Basquiat’s; and Fab 5 Freddy, and the former graffiti writer who understood that his personality was his art, and largely became famous as a host of “Yo! MTV Raps.”

In his video Fab 5 Freddy recalled late nights at the Mudd Club, where a Who’s Who of downtown would congregate to see “the hottest thing on the scene, which was Gray.” He didn’t say much about the music because, well, why would he? Gray was the hottest thing on the scene, and that’s what mattered.

Gray played two sets on Thursday — the latter one served as the kickoff for a party celebrating a limited-edition Hennessy bottle designed by the postgraffiti artist Kaws: Mr. London doubtless would have approved, and maybe even joined in. But after his show there were after-parties at the Darby and Madame Wong’s to get to, couches to jump on, a life to be invented.

For the original report go to

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