Theophilus London was figuratively and literally all over the place in 2011. Aside from dropping his first major-label EP and full-length, he appeared in spreads for GQ and on billboards for Tommy Hilfiger, launched a line of custom hats and clothes, and entertained audiences from Miami's Art Basel to the Cannes Film Festival to a Microsoft tech conference party in Seattle. His jump from internet-famous to actual-famous seemed natural, thanks mostly to his knack for self-promotion, but the Trinidad-born, Brooklyn-raised 24-year-old's culture-hopping approach built him a fail-safe foundation for his success.
London (who goes by his real name) has long worn his influences on his designer-brand sleeve. Much of his earlier mixtape material featured him rapping and singing over way-uncleared sample loops of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bill Withers, and Whitney Houston. His 2009 This Charming Mixtape hat-tipped the Smiths with its title and blatantly re-created Elvis Costello's This Year's Model with its cover photo. His 2011 Reprise debut, Timez Are Weird These Days, finds him looking very much like Leon Ware, who wrote most of Marvin Gaye's I Want You (yet another title London's used for a mixtape), on the cover of Ware's 1982 self-titled album.
London taps these influences to create party-rocking music steeped in nostalgia, full of rapped verses and anthemic, singsong hooks. It has broad appeal, it's danceable, and it's equally likely to soundtrack a fashion show, spin class, or visit to Starbucks. With Timez, this jack-of-all-trades approach yielded a master-of-none result. Full of shallow radio singles and rerecorded cuts from his EP released just months earlier, the album was the least interesting product London created all year. For a moment, this failure made his whole retro shtick seem more like intentional bait for nostalgia-obsessed, Pitchfork-trawling twentysomethings than the upshot of a true and deep appreciation of '80s music.
But like him or not, London is a preternatural modern-day pop star. Not content with just pushing his music, he's creating his own lane and marketing his entire personal brand—a nebulous buzzword to most and a popular one to people who wear expensive suits and stage focus groups. So is London just a talented young artist making money doing what he loves in this age of crossover appeal and internet overstimulation? Or did he calculate a genius buzz-generating formula—Kanye's fashion sense, Kid Cudi's dorm-friendly R&B flows, and enough '80s and indie references to fill the T-shirt racks at Urban Outfitters? In today's weird timez, they're pretty much the same thing.