You know when you’re listening to something special for the first time. There’s something a bit intangible. The beat is good, the lyrics make you think and the instrumentals make you feel. But there’s something else there. Some sort of determined individuality subtly interwoven across all three parts.
This is what you think when you first hear Theodor Black’s music. Clash was introduced to him through ‘Had Enough’, his first single of the year and the first of a round of tracks leading up the release of his new EP, 'Garçon', on November 5th. Within the song’s two minute 50 second run time are everything that sets this young South London rapper apart. His drawling, often shy, vocal style belies a frankness that his lyrics cut through in an instant, opening up about his personal battle with anxiety.
Musically, there is a versatility to Theodor Black that is hard to come by, flitting freely from lofi inspired beats, to jazz inflected pianos, through to sample stylings taken straight from the playbook of J Dilla. But this is only natural for him, having been brought up immersed in the diversity of London.
“The music you make is based heavily on the space you evolved in or grew up in and growing up in London, it’s a cultural melting pot. There’s so many different forms of influences in this one concentrated space,” he admits. “The London sound is unique because most popular music that’s played around the world comes from the states. But the UK is a bit of an untapped resource, there is so much going on that people aren't even aware of.”
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One thing that those who listen to Theodor Black will be aware of, however, is the vulnerability at the core of his music. Latest single, ‘Indigo’, doesn’t shy away from any emotional honesty, with each question that Black asks himself within the lyrics serving as both a recognition and acceptance of his inner conflict.
“I think that it’s definitely important to allow yourself to be vulnerable,” Black states, “especially given the space we’re in right now.” And given the growing national anxiety driven by the avoidable descent back into various forms of local lockdowns, understanding those feelings and giving them license to develop is going to be of paramount importance.
The driving force behind 'Garçon' goes deeper than just a few intangible ideas, but instead serves as an articulation of the rapper’s understanding of black male emotion. “'Garçon' is like a continuation of my first project that I dropped in 2018, Black Boy Blues. So the project is looking at the black male emotion, so it’s the perspective from a young black male. And obviously there are certain things you go through that may not be normalised to go through. So like feelings of insecurity and feelings of vulnerability, they all kind of tie in to this message I'm trying to get across.”
But when asked whether he thought hip-hop had adapted to adequately express these concerns, he was unequivocal in his response.
“Hip-hop originally stems from a merge of sounds, it came from jazz. But it's one of those genres that continues to be relevant because it’s so malleable. You can adapt it and place it in any space you want it and it can still be considered hip-hop.”
And Black has found a home for that malleability on the EP, with the selection of seven songs addressing a whole range of concerns. “‘Indigo,’ you know, is vulnerability,” he notes, “and another track on the project, ‘Garcon’, that would be ignorance, and anger would be ‘Sub Culture.’
‘Sub Culture’ was the last single Black dropped before ‘Indigo’ and showed a deep frustration within the rapper that had previously never been visible. “I was angry about a lot of things when I wrote it,” he divulged at the time of the release. “My filter was completely switched off and I ended up writing what I would say is one of the most honest pieces of music that I’ve composed so far.”
The song was an attack against the treatment of black women, black culture and the overarching issue of police brutality in the UK. In tone and style, it couldn’t have been more different from what had come before, offering a visceral and uncompromising anger totally removed from the woozy lofi beats of previous releases. The fact it had been written a year ago when the rapper was still only 20 is what makes it even more impressive, demonstrating a mastery of his craft beyond his years.
But while there is this rage and uncertainty in so much of his music, you wouldn’t know it from speaking to him. An inner calmness emanates throughout our chat and, more than anything else, he’s just looking forward to the EP coming out.
“I'm really happy, man, I’m really excited. I'm just excited for the project to come out really, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that I feel people need to hear and haven’t heard yet. Pretty gassed.”
And what else could he be feeling? There’s not much hope for a fully fledged underground live scene for him to get his teeth into right now, but the hype is still building. And for good reason. His honesty and sensitivity express what is deeply personal to him whilst simultaneously striking a chord with what is fely by so many more. There’s a lot the South London native has proved already, but don’t expect him to be finished just yet.
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'Garçon' EP will be released on November 5th.
Words: Ben Miles
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