The Hipster Rapper
Hip-hop and rap are not a natural choice of genres for me when I’m looking for something to listen to. In fact, I find much of hip-hop’s lyrics too full of violence, sexism and needless vulgarity. And very, very few hip-hop or rap artists—even those whom everybody seems to laud—appear to me to be good writers, rhymers or lyricists. That doesn’t mean I don’t like some of what the genre offers. Among contemporary bands, I really liked Das Racist, the alternative hip hop band from Brooklyn that features two MCs of Indian origin (I did gush about them in this column in the past). I also loved the much older Gang Starr, a duo comprising the late MC Guru and DJ Premier (I gushed about them too when Guru died a couple of years back).
In fact, if you want to listen to just one hip hop album, I’d recommend picking up Gang Starr’s Daily Operation, which they released in 1992, well before hip-hop took a headlong dive into mediocrity, unnecessary obscenity and crassness. The 19 tracks on Daily Operation have meaningful lyrics dealing with racism, disenchantment with the government as well as more personal themes such as drugs and relationships. Of course, there is a NSFW aspect to the lyrics—it’s hip-hop, after all—but it’s an album that I often go back to because of its wit, irony and, sometimes, unalloyed anger. But I can’t say that about too many other hip-hop or rap groups, which usually leave me cold and uninterested.
So, when I first read about Theophilus London, the 24-year-old Brooklynite who, according to the buzz, is becoming a sort of a sensation in rap and hip-hop circles, I hesitated from rushing to listen to him. It would be yet another modern-day rapper, I thought to myself and, in any case, not being a big fan of the genre, I procrastinated. I shouldn’t have.
After his name began cropping up in blogs and articles frequently, I decided to take the plunge and sample London’s work. I started with JAM!, a four-year-old mixtape on which he adopts popular songs, particularly Michael Jackson’s Jam and Stranger in Moscow, mixes them up with his own rhymes and produces something that can be anybody’s happy, upbeat playlist and a soundtrack for anything—a party, a commute, a workout… you name it. The best part about it—it doesn’t sound like your average hip-hop or rap album.
Although London is classified by almost everyone as a rapper, he is most unlike one. At least not like what a purist rap and hip-hop fan would define a rapper as. London takes soul and punk and R&B and fuses all of these into the mixes he composes and the result is a rich and entertaining hybrid of sound and lyrics. He also cultivates a hipsterish impage–wears skinny jeans and thick framed, big spectacles. And, yes, he’s a huge fan of The Smiths and Morrissey and Joy Division. For a rapper, that’s singular, no?
After JAM!, I heard This Charming Mix Tape, which is another experimental take with samples from old familiar songs, such as Bill Withers’ 1970s hit, Ain’t No Sunshine, and a Kraftwerk song. And London, in keeping with his aforementioned devotion to The Smiths, named this second mixtape after the Morrissey song, This Charming Man. In an interview that I watched on the web recently, London talks about how he thinks Joy Division and The Smiths were among the best lyricists ever.
There’s a lot of melody on all the tracks that make up This Charming Mixtape, some electro-pop and heavy bass and rhymes that are clever and not vulgar. I began warming up to London and by the time I heard his first full-length Timez Are Weird These Days (2011), I was a fan. Well, almost. I still like Theophilus London’s mixtapes more—they’re experimental and draw on nostalgia—whether it is samples from popular numbers or the disco beat inflected with R&B. They, the mixtapes, perhaps also raised the expectations that fans may have had of London’s first full-length. And while you still get the experimental fusion of funk and soul and street rap, you can’t be blamed if you prefer to switch back to his earlier mixtapes. But then London is just 24 and one thing’s for sure, he has lots of promise.