A lot of reviews you’re going to see this week for Theophilus London’s new studio release will probably talk about Kanye West. A lot. This is London’s own damn fault.
Yeezus is listed as an executive producer on Vibes, taking time out from working on his highly anticipated 7th solo LP to appear on standout cut “Can’t Stop” (not to be confused with Child Rebel Soldier’s “Don’t Stop”). The song itself is surprisingly delightful, teasing fans of the “old” Ye that we might be in for a big return to form (seriously, nothing baits The College Dropout obsessed like string arrangements from Miri Ben Ari). It feels like the kind of friendly, unthreatening collaboration that would have made the Can’t Tell Me Nothing mixtape. And while no one can blame London for sounding like a special guest on his own song in the presence of The Louis Vitton Don, the decision to publicly spin his new project up into the torrential storm of Yeezy album anticipation frenzy seems a curious one.
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I’ll admit to Vibes being the first London project I’ve earnestly heard in full since 2009’s This Charming Mixtape, a release whose title namechecked The Smiths while its cover homaged Elvis Costello. Back in the halcyon days of blog rap, when Charles Hamilton had a new “album” out every six hours and Mickey Factz was still a thing, Theophilus London blended into the scenery. In retrospect, he was something of an Earth-2 iteration of KiD CuDi, only less perpetually depressed and more preoccupied with fashion. Looking at the two artists’ respective career trajectories makes London essaying the role of Tim Drake to Scott Mescudi’s Dick Grayson all the more unsurprising. (Is Big Sean then Jason Todd? Is Travis Scott then Damian Wayne? Is this the worst thinkpiece pitch ever?)
Despite being regularly labeled as rappers, both artists trade more in moody atmospherics than verbal dexterity, something CuDi always seemed to understand about himself, something that probably led to his success. Here, on Vibes, London finally figures out what he excels at, which is curating a series of feels. It may sound like a criticism, but this album is perfect background music. You may never find yourself actively seeking to listen to it in the future, but once you start listening, you’ll be hard pressed for a good reason to stop. It’s a slick package, wrapped up in a Karl Lagerfeld-designed album cover, giving the impression it’s a Russian nesting doll of London’s stylistic influences, which isn’t exactly false. As much as he’s a son of Kanye, this feels like the soundtrack to hours spent scrolling through Yeezy’s old blog.
The proto-Tumblr aesthetic applies to the sound as well. There’s a nostalgia hound’s ear for the most fetishized elements of the past on display. From the smooth funk of the Leon Ware-assisted “Water Me” to the Quiet Storm cosplay of “Figure It Out” (with Dev Hynes AND Force MD’s!!!), London flexes his chameleon-esque chops to shift the sonic mood to best suit whatever “vibe” he’s interested in cultivating. Calling his mutability “range” would be generous, but there’s no mistaking the slinky quick change artist’s influences in his vocal contortions, whether channeling TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe on the new wave “Neu Law” or a paisley Prince/Kele Okereke combo on the celebratory “Need Somebody.” It never strays too far from the whispery softspeak of London’s regular register, so there’s a consistent tone throughout that makes for a very solid, imminently replayable session of songs.
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Vibes would make great party music if you party with people who can effortlessly pronounce obscure fashion designer names, who own more than one pair of leather jogging pants, or who just really wish they were drinking cocktails at a bar whose theme is “That weird dance album Dave Sitek put out about balloons.”
The only real combo breaker on this LP is the startlingly awful “Do Girls.” Remember when Kanye put “Drunk and Hot Girls” on Graduation and we, as a collective culture, were like “what the fuck, Ye?” This is that. It’s a drone strike on a village of innocents during an otherwise harmless White House Correspondence Dinner monologue about the timeliness of twerking. London explores the overwrought territory of turning lesbians straight using the self satisfied application of phallic intervention.
“She kissing girls cause she wanna, but deep down she fishing for D.”
Yeah, no, Theo. You can keep this shit. Fuck your gender normative cliche vibes. Stick to your charmingly mumblecore takes on island music (“Smoke Dancehall”) and synth driven anthems (“Get Me Right”). Maybe more Kanye.
Always more Kanye.
Vibes is available now online and at your local record store.