When Theophilus London and I meet before his show at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, the third night of his Tour de Roses, he has his laptop open. He’s in the zone, thumbing through open tabs in his browser. His shows are much the same way — he’ll ask the DJ to cut a song before it’s over to move on to something else and occasionally rap about thirty seconds of a track and then start over so he feels it more. It can be a bit jarring, but the crowd didn’t seem too fazed by the transitions, and they’re a marker of what makes London so fascinating to watch. He’s thinking out loud, in front of everyone. He invites fans into the process. It’s almost like he has a fear of monotony.
London’s Tour de Roses is all about renewal and reinvention. The bulk of his set at Lincoln Hall as one of the top acts of the Tomorrow Never Knows Festival is focused on new material, both collaborative efforts and previews from two albums out later this year. His crew dons LVRS jackets, new additions to his clothing and accessory line, and hanging above the stage is a giant, glittering banner announcing the Tour de Roses that looks like a lost backdrop from a high school drama club production.
"A rose, to me, represents brand new," London says. "It represents being pure. I guess I’m in this whole brand new stage of my life, reinventing my sound, reinventing my music, reinventing my style."
It’s been a busy week for London, even without the tour. He’s dropped two new tracks — "Last Night (LVRS Anthem)" and "Shrimp," a collaboration with part-human meme, part-rapper Kreayshawn. The crowd already knows "Last Night" when it drops fairly early in the set, and a furious current of bobbing arms begins to surface. But barely 48 hours after the track drops, London is already on to making it bigger; the day of the show, London tweeted at Merlin Bronques, the photographer behind lastnightsparty.com (a fitting choice), about collaborating on some videos.
"Yeah, me and Bronques have been friends for a long time," London says. "We always hang out together. That was always going to happen. He’s a good friend of mine. We’re going to Paris together. Sometimes I sit in on his shoots while he’s shooting girls."
Two of the songs that get the best reception on the night are collaborative efforts. “Big Spender,” a Sweet Charity-sampling track with fellow New Yorker A$AP Rocky, is performed with London’s entire crew on stage wearing balaclavas and LVRS merch, frenetically leaping and rocking out on top of the amplifiers. The other is “Why Even Try,” one of the most popular cuts from his debut full-length album, Timez Are Weird These Days, a slower jam with hints of Prince and Tom Tom Club and featuring Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara, a vocalist London says he enjoyed providing with a bit of challenge.
"I wanted to take her from her element, from what she usually does, and put her on a funk beat, on some Ike and Tina Turner shit and me and her just singing back and forth,” he says. “That shit was raw."
In addition to collaborations, the tour is something of a live test kitchen for new material from two upcoming releases: studio cut Lovers’ Holiday II and Timez Are Weird These Nights, a “a screaming, bangin’ remix album” crafted in partnership with Bing. This effort will involve audience participation: fans are invited to remix one of London’s tracks, and the best beat alchemist of the bunch will fly out to New York and master the songs with him. "I want to take kids and highlight their skills and give them an opportunity to just be heard,” he says. “This is my way to give back to the community.”
Branding has become a huge part of the narrative surrounding London and the buzz he generates, in his own ability to create meaningful symbols and emblems (the roses from the tour and the “LVRS” line) and in his collaborations with the likes of Cole Haan (who he name-checks on “Last Name London”), Bushmills, and Bing. London says he does a lot of research on the brands he chooses to work with to see if they have similar philosophies, or brands that have something to do with his lifestyle. His first branding partnership was with Mountain Dew, for which he released two songs, put out videos, worked with MTV and included fan contests to get the fans to relate and become involved.
"I think that music in general — not only hip-hop, but music in general — has been teaming up with brands. There’s brands that can really be a mechanism for putting content out,” he says. “Music in general is very important to brands because people have been brainwashed or confused by these brands 24/7, whether it’s TV or a billboard on the highway and you see a McDonald’s sign and you want to stop in because you remembered a McDonald’s commercial that just popped in your head. I choose to work with the people that I like the message behind their brand, like Bushmills, Pepsi, Cole Haan, Nike, and now Bing."
It’s not just about branding other people, though: he’s also branding himself as a musician and a style icon. Tonight’s ensemble features the LVRS cap, a phenomenal studded motorcycle jacket and a galaxy of chains. His bassist is decked out, too, coming on stage in an ornate vest that would have been home in Prince’s backing band.
"I don’t like to say what’s next,” he says of his sartorial choices. “I wear what’s next."
The Tour de Roses show itself is driven by raw energy — there is something chaotic about it with the stopping and starting and starting over, and that kind of unpredictability is hard to sell sometimes. The fans take to the new tracks with enthusiasm, but it’s the pumping stadium anthems — ”Last Name London,” “I Stand Alone” — that get mini-cyclones going on the dance floor and arms whipping through the air.
Like many performers, London constantly checks in with the crowd to make sure everyone is still with him. “How you all doing, Chicago?” Cheering. He’s doing his work as an entertainer, but the crowd doesn’t need the reinforcement: they are into it, whether he has to ask or not, like lab assistants loving the mad scientist at work (fittingly enough, a new cut that went over extremely well with the crowd was one that sampled the theme music to Pinky and the Brain). "It’s just crazy coming up with an idea, executing an idea to its fullest extent,” he says. “It’s gotta work for me.”