Weed Al Yankovic. That’s what I started calling Tim Vocals in my mind about halfway through his opening set for Chief Keef’s New York debut at SOB’s this past June. While onstage, Vocals sang about drugs, guns and sex over beats from Drake’s “Marvins Room” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”—sweetly, but with the type of slimy panache that would make even the most foul-mouthed wordsmith cringe. He also performed an a cappella rendition of R. Kelly’s “Bump N’ Grind,” altering the chorus to say, I don’t see nothin wrong with smokin weed all the time.
Tim Vocals, now 23, grew up on 114th Street in Manhattan and discovered he could sing the same way most everyone else discovers they cannot—“Just listening to CDs and shit like that, trying to reiterate what I heard,” he says over the phone from his Harlem apartment. “I was never shy about nothing, [so] that was that once I figured out I could sing.” He doesn’t always sing about marijuana, but it’s a recurring theme in his music, the entirety of which, judging by what he’s released, consists of delectably thugged-out versions of radio hits. Vocals alters the lyrics but leaves the melodic flourishes intact. This past August, he dropped his Live From Harlem mixtape, which includes the aforementioned “Marvins Room” remake (“Bags of the Sour”) and also a remix of Ne-Yo’s “Sexy Love,” repurposed as “Bust My Guns.” He says he’d just begun taking the project seriously around the time his friends started posting videos of him singing in the hallway of their building on YouTube, the earliest of which appears to have been uploaded in January 2011.
Of course, it’s not every day that you hear someone wax about street life using what so many R&B singers deploy primarily as a tool of seduction. “People look at me at first and they think I’m a rapper,” Vocals says. “Then when I start singing they’re like, Wow, you can sing! Then when they hear the concepts that I’m singing about, they’re like, Nah, he’s OD.” With Live From Harlem, he’s shown that he’s just as good at keeping the integrity of a song’s cadence as he is at rattling the status quo. He hasn’t done many shows since the Chief Keef spot, but he’s been hard at work on an EP of all original songs that he promises will offer more in the way of traditional R&B. “I have a lot of love songs,” he says. “I do! I want people to know me for what I do, and then Imma show them the other side too. I don’t think R&B is just one category—love. Imma show them different sides, show them what I got.”