When Warner Bros. announced that Kanye West would executive-produce Theophilus London’s Vibes, it brought much-needed promotion to this Brooklyn sensualist who sings more than he raps, and who spends his off-days lounging at Cannes and taking in runway shows at Paris Fashion Week. He brings uncommonly varied cultural references to his pop raps – his 2009 collaboration with Machinedrum, This Charming Mixtape, featured cover art homage to Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, and his 2011 major-label debut, Timez Are Weird These Days, included cameos from Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara and Holly Miranda. That range of sensibilities may attract a fellow dandy like West, but it may also explain why London has only had moderate success in the States. It’s hard to know what he really stands for other than good taste.
West may be the boldfaced feature on Vibes, but in reality he barely registers as a presence. Still, his sole appearance on “Can’t Stop” is a fun one, hearkening back to his breezy cameos on “American Boy,” and an era when his art seemed less weighed down by aggrieved petulance. With his husky Trinidadian voice and burnished vocals, London could be a stand-in for Kid Cudi circa “Day N Nite,” before the latter abandoned occasional pop forays like “Make Her Say” to exclusively focus on being king of the sad and lonely.
However, London doesn’t imbue his surfaces with emotional commitment. His raps are mostly throwaway, spice for the musical bouillabaisse, like “When you dip, I dip, we dip/ I’m on my guac and salsa shit” on “Heartbreaker” referencing Freak Nasty’s 90s booty-bass hit. “Do Girls” is a real doozy: He raps about seducing and “converting” a girl who only “does girls,” then inserts a telephone call of said “lesbian” crying over the phone about the encounter to her best friend. But there’s nothing about finding a love that transcends gender identities, only brags of a sexual conquest, another notch for the headboard.
London has an evocative singing voice that he displays to thrilling result alongside Ware on “Water Me.” “Tribe,” with longtime collaborator Jesse Boykins III, is bathed in electro-house reverb, evoking the better moments of his uneven but appealing debut. His robotic vocals on “Take a Look” and the android eroticism of “Smoke (Interlude)” suggests he’s a man out of time, better suited for the early-aughts electroclash craze and its emphasis on avant-garde tropes as a fashion style. Vibes is a lovely trifle, but it’s an ultimately shallow experience.