A high-pitched voice belts out at the beginning of the song, holding the note—it’s so strange, so simple, that you’re hooked and the beat hasn’t even dropped yet. The track is “Luckily I’m Having,” a standout cut on Don Toliver’s February album Love Sick, but that voice doesn’t belong to Don. It’s alternative rapper-singer Teezo Touchdown, kicking the track off before he shifts into hook duty, stealing the whole thing before it even starts.
A similar heist happened just one month prior: forty seconds into track two of Lil Yachty’s psych-rock pivot Let’s Start Here, on a funky, car-ready jam titled “The Ride.” Teezo comes soaring in (“Baby if you’re scared of heights, just close your eyeeeeeees”), complementary but still commanding all the attention. It’s the kind of unlisted feature that immediately sends you scanning the liner notes to figure out who the hell that was.
Young fans with their ear to the ground are already familiar with Teezo, and have been for the last four years or so. Casual listeners might have clocked him on Tyler, the Creator’s 2021 victory lap anthem “Runitup.” Or maybe you just know Teezo as the guy with the nails in his hair. Whatever your introduction to Teezo was, audio or visual, the immediate reaction is: I need to know more.
And after about five years of bubbling, he’s finally released his debut album How Do You Sleep at Night?, a project that combines his unique handle on flow, R&B melodies, pop hooks, and power-ballad-belted high notes to create one of the most refreshing listens of the year. Reaction to the album has been divisive so far, with detractors arguing the music is disjointed or surface level pastiche that comes secondary to his theatrics. There are cloying (“Impossible”), sophomoric (“Daddy Mama Drama”), and bizarrely twee (“Mood Swings”) moments for sure, but those are mere blips. Listening to How Do You Sleep at Night? feels like someone finally landed on a new recipe in pop music—and it announces Teezo as one of the most exciting freshmen to debut in years.
“I say read the instruction book and then after you read it, burn it,” Teezo tells me. There’s an alluring duality to his approach: on paper the lyrics might seem pat, but the execution offers a twist that’s both crowd-pleasing and excitingly… weird. In Teezo’s hands, familiar words and turns of phrase get mutated into something that feels foreign. Take “Luckily I’m Having,” where he goes through extra pains to hold the note on the “g”—it sounds like someone singing into a fan. (This is a good thing.) Or the runway Tyler gives him on “Runitip” to riff jokes that get hilariously more distorted and bizarre: “I’m runnin’ like a politician/I’m runnin’ like the water on the dirty dishes/I’m runnin’ like the roaches in the kitchen/ I’m runnin’ like the damn transssssssssssmission.”
I first meet Teezo on a sunny spring day in May—a packed day that took us through lunch (Lucien), a self-care intermission (the nail salon—for hands, not hair), and two fan meet-and-greets, one scheduled (in Washington Square Park) and one impromptu (playing his album for fans in Gramercy Park). He’s wearing a red wrestling uniform, topped off with football shoulder pads, matching knee and elbow pads and high, black furry spiked boots—with his lanky frame, enough nails weaved into his dreads to mount a New York City scaffolding, every tooth armored with gleaming silver grills, he looks like a Crash Bandicoot villain.
He’s one of those stars who seems to go out of his way to present as a weirdo— in his first ever-interview with Pigeons & Planes, he ate the written questions he objected to. But on the day we meet, Teezo is unexpectedly calm and measured, at times shy and soft-spoken even. Much like in his songwriting, he can be wry, and more often earnest, or politely humble to an almost unintentionally hilarious degree—like when he asks someone from his team to bring his phone over so he could show me a few music biographies he’d been listening to. He pauses. He looks at me and says he doesn’t consider himself famous enough to have someone else hold his phone for him. “I just literally can’t,” he says, gesturing to his wrestling singlet, which has no pockets.
The day starts at Conscious Unconscious, the rap photography exhibit at the Fotografiska art gallery on Park Avenue, taking in classic pictures of hip-hop legends new and old. Teezo salutes Run DMC, whose sound he evokes on a tongue-in-cheek homage he’d just put out called “Rock, Paper, Strippers.” He marvels at the coincidence of Trippie Redd and Lil Yachty’s portraits being right next to each other, two rappers who embraced him in the infancy of his career. He stops awestruck before a black & white photo of pre-fame Lauryn Hill sitting on a stoop in Fort Greene.
“These are just people, and then boom, she’s Lauryn Hill… one day she dropped this debut album and…” Teezo trails off, contemplating the obvious. “I had to go through the nobody stage,” he laughs. “I thought you just come to LA, they throw some dust on you, and you’re famous.”
Standing around the mostly empty gallery, Teezo certainly looks the part. “When people look at me like now, they think, you’re putting on this act. When it’s actually the opposite: when I’m trying to strip down and be normal, that is an act. This is me when I’m at my freest. I get to experiment. Wear the weird stuff, and just be without the fear of [being] judged.” Still, he can’t help but be self-conscious about the inevitable glances he keeps drawing from the people around us. “That’s why I’m talking very quietly now. I’m super hyper conscious and aware. Coming from Texas, I definitely had to deal with that. I think I used it to my advantage dressing like this around my peers who I knew wouldn’t understand it, just so I could get that kind of attention and use that as practice. Like, alright, if I can take it here, then when I get to the next level.”
Teezo spent his nobody stage growing up in Beaumont, Texas where the artist, born Aaron (pronounced ay-ron)—the youngest of five siblings—quickly adopted his father’s DJing hobby, playing parties and eventually directing music videos for local artists. He quietly worked on his own music while working odd jobs. Some of his best songs navigate the tension of having a steadfast assuredness that he would be a star with an aching yearning to get a chance to convince everyone else. “I’ve always been famous to me,” he says. “It was just hoping everyone else would see it.”
What stands out about Teezo’s music though, is how it’s purely devoid of spite. Other artists might use that for fuel. But Teezo seems to possess Spongebob Squarepants-levels of unflappable good-vibes optimism.
Take, for example, the way he shares what he calls his one standout cliche story about someone who didn’t believe in him. When he was in high school, a homegirl told him flatly, “Yeah man, you need to give this up.” She pulled no punches: “Listen to your speech, you’re slurring all your words,” she said of his lisp. “I immediately was like, I wonder where did she get that, to be okay to tell someone that? Cause I feel like a lot of people project. Like, who told you that?”
Then, without missing a beat: “But that music I was making in high school, it was bad.”
We’re at lunch at Lucien, a scene-y French restaurant hangout for the New York cool kids in the East village. His bubbly energy had dissipated ever so slightly. He confesses that now that he’s finally arrived, he’s having a hard time enjoying the moment.
“I’m taking it so seriously that I need to step back and really have fun with it,” he says. “There’s this self sabotage thing that I’m learning a lot of artists deal with. We have this thing where we want to shoot ourselves in the foot for some reason. It’s like you didn’t want to do that interview that day, you were having an attitude, you let a bad session mess up your interview. So my team had to tell me to, just, have fun.”
And as he tells me this, a stray nail falls from his hair, bouncing off his football pads and onto the floor.
His life, like anyone’s, has not been without its share of clouds. He plays a (still) unreleased song for me themed around the year 2016, riffing on the year’s pop culture milestones (like say, Leo winning the Oscar) while juxtaposing them against events in his own life. Time spent with Teezo reveals him to be obscenely fixated on dates, times, and mementos to anchor those memories. He still has the pen he signed his record deal with; he writes the names of everyone he meets down on yellow sticky pads.
As he plays me the track, I ask him what significance the year 2016 holds.
“We all”—people our age, he meant—“romanticize that year,” he says, citing seminal albums like Blonde. “But it was probably one of the darkest summers for me, because I lost my girlfriend to gun violence that year.”
He continues: “That was when I said I’m going to really go for the Teezo Touchdown thing, fearlessly. I was like, You can either go crazy and just dive into the grief or use this numbness to go out and be fearless. It felt like I was walking in the street with my eyes closed with traffic coming. I didn’t care, I was just numb.”
“Whatever is motivating you, it has to be something solid, because grief… it’s dark and scary, but time heals that. And then you find yourself saying, Wait, what am I doing this for again? So, I’m finding what’s going to be my reason to keep going because I can’t just keep going back to that.”
New artists are inevitably beset with comparisons to veterans who are even a little similar, a gift and curse situation that ends up stacking them against impossibly high standards. For all his flamboyant outfits and penchant to sing or thrash just as much as he raps, Teezo often found himself getting compared to Andre 3000 and Tyler. “[When] I was in the studio with Tyler, he was [on the phone] with Andre and I joked, Could you tell him to tell people to stop comparing me to him?” Teezo recalls. “It’s the ego to want to be like, Nah, I’m doing my own thing.”
Then, according to Teezo, Tyler offered some sagely advice: “If people didn’t know what a bear was when they see it in the woods for the first time, they would freak out. So you have to understand that it’s going to be kind of abrasive for people when they first see you. Don’t trip on that. People compare and associate things to calm their senses down, so don’t take it personal.”
It’s why the visit to the museum and all the biographies he’s been consuming are so important to him: He’s learning to embrace rap’s history. Learning to understand that whatever he’s going through is nothing new.
Teezo got his biggest feature look yet on Travis Scott’s highly-anticipated album Utopia, somehow meshing 80s New Wave with Prince on “Modern Jam.” Meanwhile, Drake has dedicated precious ad space on his Instagram to give Teezo a major shoutout—something he rarely even offers to the artists signed to his own label—hailing Teezo’s debut as “some of the best music he’s heard.”
I’ve long liked Teezo. But I was a little nonplussed by the hyperbole—until I actually heard the album that had become How Do You Sleep At Night? (Once again, Teezo is earnestly drawing from his influences: the title is a nod to Prince’s song titles). The final version of the album is a complete re-tooling—only about four of the fourteen songs are holdovers from the original project, which was titled Could’ve Been Me. What exists now is a laser-focused approach to the Teezo Experience. There are still colliding styles—at least half of the songs do a genre-180 midway through the track—but he’s wrestled them all under a single banner of an idea, what he’s calling “Rock & Boom.”
“The original album was more of a showcase of, Hey, I can do this, I can do that, I can do this,” he would explain to me. “Rock and Boom is more focused: it’s R&B with the intensity of rock, with the R&B top lines, boom bap penmanship, and that 808 bass with the flavor of Beaumont.”
When I leave Teezo in May, he’s sitting legs crossed in Gramercy Park, surrounded by a couple dozen devoted fans who are eating up that version of the album as dusk fell over the city. But Teezo isn’t happy. He could tell that the reaction to what he was teasing wasn’t amounting to what he’d hoped for. “Keep it real with me: you see it’s not connecting,” he recalled asking his manager at the Mondrian at some point this summer, looking out from a balcony and realizing he needed to pivot. So he re-assessed everything. The new music he’d been making with an eye towards his second project was what was exciting him the most, so, he thought: Why wait? “I didn’t really want to put too much on hopefully being able to give a second impression. So I just used the momentum of the ‘new album’ and put it onto this one just to give you that great first impression,” Teezo says. “It was an honest moment. I always preach about trial and success. Don’t be afraid to scrap everything.”
There’s a strange allure to Teezo’s R&B and pop songwriting. His influences are as clear as they are wide-ranging; you may not like one approach on a song, but can be certain a better turn is around the corner. “Too Easy” downshifts from Hot Topic alt-rock into a smooth Ty Dolla $ign-esque transition, with lines that probably contributed to Drake’s effusive praise (“My DMs are hit-or-miss: half I hit, half I miss”); a friend I played “Luckily” for told me it reminded them of underrated aughts playboy Pleasure P. The difference is, those three artists are fatally horny on wax. Reading the lyrics to Teezo’s “Uuhh,” he sounds like one of the kids in American Pie who asks a girl if they can “go one more time and hold each other when we’re through.”
Other songs like “You Thought” have an intriguing dichotomy—the bars are all tossed off “you had me fucked up” cliches over an urgent, high-energy beat (“you would’ve thought I made drum major the way I play with the bands”). But that bravado quickly breaks down into a ballad (“You would’ve thought that I was far away the way she keeps screamin’”). The lines are written with the same thematic turn of phrase as the first half, only now each one is a knife twist from his girl that he never saw coming. The beat, theme and genre switches in any given song all hold up more or less, but Teezo attributes them to being another case of figuring out how to wrestle his different ideas down. “I think that comes from a weakness that I have,” he says. “If I hit writer’s block, I’ll go on to the next idea and I’ll see that the subject matter is similar and then we just match them together. So what you’re seeing is me turning my weakness into one of my strengths.”
When we talk again in the summer, Teezo sounds emboldened after the trial by fire of his album release. “I’m realizing now that on the other end of fear or doubt is usually something great,” he says. He starts telling a story about the time he was in the studio with Travis Scott. “I was in [the booth] just trying stuff, and then I couldn’t see into the live room [where Travis was]. Then [after awhile] I was like, Yo, Trav man, I’m sorry, but I’m not hearing anything. And then the engineer’s voice popped in to say Travis had actually stepped out and he’ll be right back.”
So Teezo went back into the booth, dug in, and the stuff he recorded that day resulted in “Modern Jam”—one of Utopia’s standout tracks.
Now Teezo is much more sure of the music, and comfortable in the idea that there will be more to figure out. Expression, after all, is a constant evolution. “It’s like I’m a piece of gum, man,” says Teezo. “I’m just riding with what sticks, and if it doesn’t, it rolls off.”
So you’ll keep building on what you have already, until it’s time to refresh, try a new direction—and start the process all over?
“And then, next thing you know, I’m Teezo Touchdown.”