Creative consultant Tremaine Emory remembers the last time he felt the impact of his friend Theophilus London, prior to him all but vanishing from the music and fashion scene he so often enjoyed.
Emory, who is best known lately for lending his services to Kanye West’s artistic endeavors, recalls a Paris evening in 2016 that began with an early dinner with singer-songwriter Frank Ocean. A reclusive artist in his own right, Ocean had just released his critically acclaimed Blonde and Endless projects within days of each other. The pair toasted to the feat before Emory invited Frank to designer (and former Creative Director to West) Virgil Abloh’s Off-White Paris Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2017 runway show.
There, Ocean sat front row by Kanye and wife Kim Kardashian. As models in Abloh’s elegant take on streetwear — a style only recently acknowledged among fashion’s elite — strolled by, the show’s musical director Guillaume Berg opened with Theophilus’ yet-to-be-released “Revenge,” a collaboration with indie-rocker Ariel Pink. It’s a cover of obscure English new wave band New Musik’s 1981 cut “They All Run After The Carving Knife (See How They Run).” London, however, was at home in Los Angeles, skipping the trip altogether.
“It was a moment,” Emory says. “Then a little bit after that, he put out the single and poof! Gone. And I didn’t hear from him for, like, a year and a half.”
The ghosting may have truly commenced that winter, but what led to it had been brewing for years. On a cool fall evening in Los Angeles, London sits comfortably in his Silverlake home — street chic, with an Atlanta Braves cap with “Love” embroidered on the side lazily sitting above his blond-dyed hair (recently unleashed from straight-back cornrows) and a mustard tee — and runs through it all: where the hell he went, when his life took a dip and his drought began.
It started in 2014. He’d just released his sophomore album Vibes!, a lo-fi, moody and masterful hybrid of NYC Hip-Hop, mid-‘70s R&B, and downtown indie cool. It moved less than 3000 units in its debut week. The chilly reception was especially surprising, considering the names attached to the project. Kanye West was the executive producer. Friend and Chanel Creative Director Karl Lagerfeld shot the album artwork. It was released on Warner Bros. Apple even used several instrumentals from it to introduce the world to the iPhone 6. “I was craving for the mainstream,” London says now, with a hint of regret. “I was super eager to get in that space.”
Theophilus, 31, the Brooklyn-raised son of Trinidadian parents, rose to prominence with DIY mixtapes around 2009, back when bloggers were the gatekeepers and de facto A&Rs. Still, in order to blow like a Kid Cudi, Wale or Drake — who all earned stripes and acclaim as indie acts — conventional wisdom suggested it’d be best to sign to a major label as they did. So after being courted by then-Warner executive Lyor Cohen, who came to see London perform at the now-defunct Santos Party House in downtown New York City, Theo joined, too.
In 2011, his debut effort Timez Are Weird These Dayz had posted similarly disappointing numbers, propelling London to work especially hard on Vibes! — which can best be described as art-house hip-hop and R&B. Holed up in Palm Springs, London called up a wish list of collaborators. “I felt like Marvin Gaye when he was 25, growing my hair out,” he tells Billboard of his desert days. “I was trying to stretch my mind, trying to impress myself.”
He brought in Leon Ware, the man who helped craft Gaye’s seminal 1976 quiet storm album, I Want You. French DJ and producer Louis “Brodinski” Rogé and British singer-songwriter Devonte “Blood Orange” Hynes also lent a hand. West contributed a solid guest verse on the sultry mid-tempo cut “Can’t Stop.” But quiet as kept, aside from an appearance at London’s NYC Soho House release party with Kardashian, that was the extent of West’s EP’ing role on the LP.
The exaggerated title came as a gift to London. The pair had grown to be friends after a 2010 meeting in Cannes, where Kanye chatted him up about fashion. West fancied his rebellious style, how London could pair designer suits with Air Jordan sneakers and add his Brooklyn flair to it. Before ‘90s-era snapback caps became a trend, or Pharrell Williams began his run of eccentric hats, London would often be seen in paparazzi shots wearing any one from his insane collection — a Smith College baseball hat one day, a floppy chapeau another.
London has always been a fashion darling. He met Lagerfeld in Paris during one trip after coincidentally being around him on four different instances on the same day, making the fingerless-glove-wearing icon extend his hand to introduce himself. He attributes his popularity with other couture houses to sample sizes fitting his lanky frame, and to one stretch during Paris Fashion Week in 2011 when Kanye could not attend and London became “the next token Black guy up,” he jokes. “They just needed another cool Black guy for a Lanvin show. I took it, and from then on, I was in. I was just getting the right opportunities and around the right people.”
West is known to boast a circle of creatives to assist in sharpening nebulous ideas. For a stretch, London was one of those contributors (he’s featured alongside Paul McCartney and Allan Kingdom on West’s 2015 single “All Day”). As a thank you of sorts, West offered to attach his name to Vibes! “He wanted to do that,” London explains. “I was just out there hanging and working with him and he goes, ‘My way of helping you is attaching my name to it.’”
Kanye was more of a mega-famous, influential homeboy showing love by putting his proverbial arm around Theo than a vigilant executive producer or business partner, tooling with instrumentals and pondering promo strategies. “Anyone would think if he put his name on it, it would go [far],” Theophilus says of his thought process. “And it didn’t work out. I play things out in my head 99 times, and the one way that it played out that it didn’t work is what actually happened in real life.”
The harsh reality is that Kanye’s fans ran to the Kanye track, “Can’t Stop,” and hardly trifled with the rest. (On Spotify, “Can’t Stop” has racked up nearly 18 million plays, while no other track on Vibes! has yet cleared three million spins.) The combination of poor sales, Internet trolls clowning him, and the general lack of marketing execution led to the start of London’s downward spiral. “I had just made the album of my life and I felt like I was in hell,” he says. “I worked with Karl, one of my idols. And Leon, one of my biggest inspirations. And it all got overshadowed. My biggest fear is failure. I just shut down.”
First, he canceled the impending national Vibes! tour. Then in 2015 with an open schedule and no drive to create in Los Angeles, London moved back to New York City.
Nowadays he, Virgil — current Men’s Creative Director at Louis Vuitton in Paris — and Tremaine mostly communicate via group chat. But three years ago they were a tight motley crew of sorts, a force in the nightlife world. At renowned parties, Emory and Acyde Odunlami (as No Vacancy Inn) hosted, Abloh DJ’ed and London MC’ed all over the city, even having an exclusive residency at Tiki Tabu, the rooftop bar of the Lower East Side SIXTY hotel.
“We just took over these clubs,” London says. “I didn’t have a place to stay, so I had a meeting with the owner at the SIXTY that basically went like, ‘I’ll throw a party here once a week on some Vegas shit, and now I live here.’ He agreed to it. I brought Tremaine and Virgil in. We were like the Avengers. We were creative directors, a rapper, designers linking up.”
When he wasn’t NY Theo, he’d take the occasional trip overseas to support friends. British producer Mark Ronson invited him on the road. Aussie psychedelic rock musician Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, singer Daniel Merriweather, and London performed at England’s Glastonbury Festival together, supporting Ronson during the summer of 2015.
Ronson would also fly him out to Ibiza not to be a marquee rapper, but to work the room as an MC and host. “It was shit that I was lightweight embarrassed to do,” London says, not sounding ungrateful for the opportunity so much as ego-bruised over the lower level of billing. “I’d run into [U.K. grime rappers] Skepta and Giggs in London and they’d say they look up to me. But then I’d be hosting for Mark.”
His confidence was dropping, and needling from external forces didn’t help. “I was getting booked a lot as a DJ,” London recalls. “And people were trying to play me like, ‘Oh, he’s a DJ now.’ That was getting to me.” He moved back to LA, renting out Airbnbs and attempting to get back to recording. Still, London was creatively stifled. The lack of productivity made him reclusive. “I was wondering what the point of going out was,” he says. “I’d be out and people would go, ‘What’s next?’ But I wasn’t inspired at all.”
Postmates delivery drivers with lunch and dinner in tow saw him more than friends. “I started to feel faded and lost,” he says. Unsure where he fit in 2017’s era of SoundCloud mumble rappers and trap drums, London started to wonder if there was still a place for him in the Hip-Hop landscape. He even admits through self-deprecating laughter that he “was dating a 20-year-old, almost for research purposes. I just needed to take a step back.”
Fashion has provided steady work for London even in his lean years. Passive income would still show up in his bank account, thanks to his contracts as a model with NEXT Management. (He’s been a part of a Gap campaign, designed Cole Haan shoes, had a capsule collection with Stussy as a brand ambassador and featured in Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld’s book The Little Black Jacket.) But he “wasn’t putting any seeds in the ground,” he says. “I was in panic mode.”
He wiped his Instagram images clean. His direct messages had an intimidating amount of unread notes — some from supposed buds he wished would have actually reached out to him. ”There were thousands [of DMs]. My friends asking, ‘Are you dead?’” he recalls. “I hated that they weren’t checking on me in real life. That was bothering me, too.”
He doesn’t like to use the word much, but Theophilus was depressed, to the point where he cryptically adds that “there were moments when I was down, and my mind couldn’t work, and I would just think about one or two things that don’t have any relevance to my creed.” Before his fate truly turned grim, though, London hit reset: He took a social media hiatus, and dropped his smartphone in favor of an old-school flip cellular, only adding essential people to his contacts. As 2018 approached, London finally began to set new intentions and goals, realizing that the life he’d lived didn’t feed his soul.
Theophilus had accomplished much and garnered the respect of many. “I had money, designer pieces in my closets, signed things by my favorite artists,” he lists. “I was riding in jets with ‘Ye. I was doing what I wanted to do. I was having one-on-one meetings with JAY-Z, and he likes me. And I just wasn’t happy. I had a lot of figuring things out to do. I had to take that journey as a man.”
He moved back to Manhattan, staking out in a hotel in the Gramercy sect, then was invited to stay with his brother in the boonies of Rhode Island. Out in his Providence bedroom, London would rummage through old emails dating as far back as 2007.
Theo had forgotten who he was. Looking back allowed him to time-travel to see his pure self at the start of his career, and what it meant to him. London found forgotten song lyrics, downloaded decade-old attachments, and created a mood board of sorts. “I was just building my armor up,” he says. For the prior two years, London was structureless, hiring and firing managers, traveling to Europe or South Africa on a whim. In Rhode Island, good routines sprouted.
“I’d just wake up, go to the gym and this Colombian restaurant to chat up one girl that worked there. I’d call Tremaine or Virgil. I hadn’t seen them in years.” He started planting seeds again, inching towards the direction of his best self. Steady doses of assurance would turn his once burdened mind into a place where morale rose. Or as he says, these were his “steps toward Graceland.”
Staying low-key, Theophilus would buy Peter Pan bus and Amtrak tickets to NYC for evening studio sessions in the heart of midtown or Union Square to record, yanking his Champion hoodie over his head and knotting the drawstring to cover his bearded face to keep to himself.
He no longer works with West, but Emory played a key consigliere role in Kanye’s prolific output as both an artist and sole producer for five albums released over five consecutive weeks at the start of 2018’s summer. He was sure to invite London to Wyoming for West’s sprawling bonfire release party in May, then to the Queensbridge, NY party for Nas’ West-helmed Nasir album. As the live-streamed functions played and images hit social media, London could be seen bro’ing out with West, soaking up the good times and building with old buds.
“He was low,” Emory says. “He was banged up. No matter how great you are, you need that cosign from your friends saying, ‘We fuck with you.’ I think this year, Theo is seeing that certain people fuck with him forever.”
Not long after West’s festivities, Abloh invited Theophilus to be a model in his first fashion show in Paris as Vuitton’s lead (musician peers like Kid Cudi and Blood Orange also walked the runway). “Theo is an artist and an important figure in the downtown scene that makes the indie now,” Abloh tells Billboard over email. “The casting of the show reflected friends that fit the same criteria. He provides culture with a natural and human approach to making music while discovering himself.”
By the end of June, London was officially out of his shell, with a repopulated Instagram page that teased his 200,000 followers with new music via studio clips. “I rose with the flowers,” he says. Now an indie act (“I know it was a waste of my time being on Warner”) getting help from Independently Popular — who also manage acts like SuperDuperKyle and MadeinTYO — he’s launched his own boutique label, My Bebey Records.
His first single, “Bebey” — the title track from his forthcoming album (slated to release in 2019 on his birthday, February 23) — has an island ease, enough to support his cheeky come-ons to the woman he’s directing them to (“Sun’s down/ I’ll meet you by the sea line/ I’ll whip off ya top while you braid my hair.”). As often is the practice, Theophilus shared the track with his brain trust group chat. After props were exchanged, Emory suggested the cut be sent to U.K. DJ Benji B. Fitting, because an alternative mix of the record features South East London rapper Giggs. Over a text exchange about London, Giggs simply says, “The bredda makes RIDDIMS! He’s very talented.”
Popping Wild Berry Skittles in his living room, London plays me “Whiplash,” a menacing track from Bebey that speaks on his absence and surprising return. He’s changed lyrics since recording this draft, so now he’s rapping the new version to me over the instrumental. “They lookin’ like they seen a ghost,” he spits. “When they know it’s my vibe they need the most.” The line was born from the memory of landing in Paris ahead of Virgil’s Vuitton show, and being around old acquaintances who gave him shifty “What’s he doing here?” stares before opening up their arms for fake hugs.
He pulls up the seductive “Only You” next. It’s a cover of Nigerian singer Steve Monite’s 1984 Afro Boogie classic of the same name. Both tracks were produced by Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker.
London and Parker first met back in 2015 rehearsing to perform with Ronson for Glastonbury, but really connected in Perth, Australia while knocking drinks back and jamming with Ronson and crew ahead of another concert. “I had this thing that I wasn’t going to play anyone,” Parker recalls of the demo track for “Whiplash.” “But I played it for him. He’s got a recording of me on his phone singing parts to it while I was wasted. Apparently, some of that ended up becoming the actual hook.”
After those sessions Down Under, not much happened. Unaware of London’s personal demons, Parker simply shrugged London’s disappearance off as another artist going away to their quiet place to create. They only reconnected a few months back in Los Angeles to finish up “Whiplash,” which is when London caught him up on his stint of depression.
“That kind of took me by surprise,” Parker says. “On the outside, he comes across as one of the most confident people I know. He’s so talented. When you learn that someone has some things that they’re dealing with and you thought that they’re someone who is on top of the world, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow!’ People’s exterior and interior can be different.”
While finishing up “Whiplash,” London decided he needed a break. They were two weeks into fine-tuning the track daily and “we just needed something to cleanse our palette,” Kevin says. “He was like, ‘You know what? Fuck it. Let’s just do something else.’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ It was so spontaneous.” London suggested doing a cover. Taking cult classics and making them his own is actually a tip Theo got from West years ago. Parker pulled up Monite’s “You” and they knocked it out that night. “We’re both into vintage songs with a modern feel,” he explains.
On streaming services, London’s return is evident. His catalog sales went up 38 percent in November on Apple Music. “Only You” has been played over a million times on Spotify and is featured on 15 of their official playlists. “Bebey (SN1 Road Mix)” with Giggs has been the Tune of the Week and Hottest Record in the World on several BBC Radio 1 shows in the U.K. It’s also been crowned one of the Hottest Records of the Year by host Annie Mac and has been played nearly two million times on Spotify. Pop superstar Rihanna direct-messaged him to say she loved the record. Producer Swizz Beatz posted clips of him and his son bouncing to it in Egypt on Instagram.
Abloh premiered “Only You” on his Apple Music Beats 1 show Televised Radio, then welcomed him on stage to perform his latest tracks at Tyler the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw festival in Los Angeles weeks ago. And though it has not been announced yet, London has booked a performance slot on one of late night TV’s biggest network shows.
Even as his stats rise, Emory continues to preach to brother London that whether his songs top the Hot 100 or not — his first two singles have yet to hit the chart — he’s still an incredible artist. “The success is in the work,” Emory says. “That’s the validation, too. Putting validation in how much something sells, how many likes, who tweets it… It’s a black hole that you can’t control. The only way to stay sane in this art world is to not seek validation. What you seek validation from owns you. That’s what we’ve been talking about: not seeking the validation and just doing.”
Theophilus plays “Seals,” a brooding, sparse cut he originally wrote in 2008, where two guitars battle for who’ll hug him the hardest as he emotes. “Wrote this song [for] anybody going [through] pain right now,” he recently captioned an Instagram post that plays a clip of the song. “[Especially] this time of year. With self love and a vision, trust me: You can find happiness.” Elsewhere on Bebey, legendary NYC rhymer and Wu-Tang Clansman Raekwon joins him on “Wu-Tang Flow.” Skepta delivers on the grim “Alone.” There’s an Afrofunk jam that aims to yank listeners to the type of boogie parlors that spin Fela Kuti on choice nights, another that feels well-suited for a coming-of-age film starring Timothée Chalamet. The late Leon Ware’s smooth production rings elsewhere on the appropriately named album opener “Leon.”
When Ware passed in 2017 of prostate cancer complications, London took the loss hard. His mentor and partner in Vibes! left a going-away present for London, though. “A friend [of Leon’s] sent me an email saying, ‘He wanted you to have this,’” London remembers. It was the skeleton instrumental of what would become “Leon.” Theo spent all summer playing it before laying down his vocals, where he uses Auto-Tune for the first time to float on the hook.
As fresh music pours out of the home speaker, and Theophilus grooves to his tunes, calling today’s London anything but free would be a lie. He’s rapping and singing along, standing tall in his fitted blue jeans and on the balls of his Air Jordan 13s, radiating a newfound joy. Those who’ve been to Los Angeles’ Peppermint Club recently have seen him flourish on stage with Parker for ragtag performances, prepping for proper shows to come. Next year he aims to rock on premiere festival stages.
“He’s like a dusty, Brooklyn, Trini Michael Jackson,” Emory says on London’s raw, intense stage presence. “He’s very different from Mike, but he gives me that feeling. That showmanship. Whether he’s in shorts, Jordans and a hoodie or wearing fucking loafers in pencil cut Dior jeans with a denim shirt that has the top four buttons open and some wild-ass dad hat he found. He gets the mic and those shoulders start moving… It’s over.”
“Not to sound cocky,” Theo says as I wait for what surely will be a cocky-ass finish, “I know that I’m 17 levels ahead of what [everyone else] is doing. This music is, like, crazy good. I’m designing every song. I’m back in my zone.” London’s glowing again.
Time will tell if Theophilus ever becomes a full-fledged pop star or if he’ll remain the man who influences them. Results pending, it seems he’ll be fine either way. “I’m just stronger and wiser,” he says. Appreciating the dawn is easiest to do just as night has fallen. London knows that. “It was dark. I wasn’t seeing these lights. I didn’t dance. I was scared.”
A grin breaks into a full-on smile under that Braves cap he’s been sporting. His blond hair could be mistaken for a bulb shining at max wattage.