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Teezo Touchdown: Birth of a Rock Star


Y
ou’re too old
for this. It should have happened for you already.

It takes no small amount of bravado to call yourself Teezo Touchdown, to walk around with metal nails dangling from your hair, to tap an aggro rap-rock vein few others are mining, to croon like a mutant Morrissey in the middle of a Travis Scott song and then face arenas full of Scott’s rageaholic teen fans every night. But the real money and the big solo hits haven’t arrived yet, and for one of the buzziest and most polarizing new artists of the moment, it sometimes feels like the voices of critics and doubters are everywhere. They’re loudest inside his own head.

Backstage one December evening, in a dressing room deep inside New York’s Madison Square Garden, Teezo narrates that inner monologue. “‘Nah, you ain’t really supposed to be here,’” he says. “‘You’re 31. This should’ve been happened.’” He leans back on a gray couch that complements all of his silver-colored adornments: the nails in his hair; the chain on his neck; the stage glitter speckling his body; the ring in his septum; the hoops in each ear, one tiny, the other oversize, with a bonus nail affixed to it; the grills on his teeth; the metal on the two belts stacked on his waist. The letter “T” is scrawled on each cheek in black mascara. He’s fulfilled his duties for the day as Scott’s opening act, playing a 20-minute set and then popping up, as usual, during Scott’s performance to sing on their collaboration, “Modern Jam.” A few hundred yards away, Scott is still onstage, and the room keeps rattling in rhythm with his apocalyptic array of subwoofers.

Teezo feels better when he reminds himself that Scott told him he could be the biggest artist in the world, or that Drake publicly said Teezo is making “some of the best music ever.” But sometimes he feels like he’s just Texas-born Aaron Lashane Thomas, that he’s still the overweight, swimming-with-his-shirt-on kid he once was. “It’s a lot of insecurity to overcome to be a rock star, you know?” he says. Onstage, even tonight, he gets caught up inside his head: “Should I say this? Am I yapping? I can do a cool move here.

So, yes, Teezo Touchdown is a work in progress. But who isn’t? In any case, after years of struggle — and one life-changing tragedy — last year was his big breakout. In September, he dropped his debut album, How Do You Sleep at Night?, which is full of musical invention and sharp, guitar-buoyed hooks, with Teezo singing as much as he raps, all the while bringing the rock influences implicit in music like Scott’s and Playboi Carti’s to the surface. Around the same time, Teezo made memorable guest appearances on Scott’s Utopia and on two songs on Drake’s For All the Dogs, landed his opening slot with Scott, and booked his own solo tour which starts in March.

The artist much of the world met last fall had his face shrouded by a curtain of metal, and the nails-as-hair thing has been key to the Teezo Touchdown gestalt since nearly the beginning. It started with one or two, before nearly taking over his entire look. (He wanted them to be actual nine-inch nails at one point, but learned they don’t exist.) Once he stumbled upon the style, circa 2019, he needed a sound to match, a quest that led him away from more conventional hip-hop into something more rock-influenced, beginning with that year’s viral hit “100 Drums,” which flipped Panic! At the Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” into an anti-gun-violence rap-rock rager. Lately, though, he’s been dialing it down. “I didn’t wanna lose this,” he says, gently yanking on one of the nails, “but I didn’t want to make it my main character trait.”

His hair is mostly just hair now, shorn into a Prince-in-the-Nineties mullet-y shag, and he’s pared down his tonsorial nail collection to just a few in the back. It’s a notable change in style that stemmed in part from a conversation with one of the many veteran artists who have taken an interest in his career, Pharrell Williams. “He was like, ‘Yo, when I first seen you, I was like, I really hope that the nails don’t make him unapproachable,’” Teezo recalls. 

The weight of all that metal was getting to him, too, and he was feeling less need to conceal himself. “I want you to focus on this face right here,” he says. He’s also stopped wearing giant, linebacker-style shoulder pads, a fashion choice he now says came from “hiding my body, being self-conscious about my body and stuff.”

Contrary to his chosen name, Teezo’s lone football experience, in middle school, lasted a mere week, ending when he went up against a kid named Sean. “It was damn near an Adam Sandler movie how it happened,” he says, with a flash of grills. “Sean looked like he drove to middle school.… They blew that whistle, and the next thing I know, my ankles went to my ears. And the next week, I was in band.”

DRESS by LUAR. Skirt by KOVEN 20:24. Necklace by CHRIS HABANA. Nail Earring by BOND HARDWARE. Dangly Earring: JUSTINE CLENQUET. Ear Cuffs: STYLIST’S OWN. Nose Jewelry by SHO KONISHI. Lip jewelry: AUSTIN JAMES SMITH.

Teezo’s debut hasn’t been an instant smash, and the combination of his look, those rock inflections, and his sudden prominence — the guest spots, the five-star review from Drake — may have backfired, tempting some critics to slam him to the ground nearly as hard as Sean did, dismissing him as a pandering gimmick. As Teezo puts it, “It’s like, ‘Drake said you’re the best music ever? What does he know? Teezo Touchdown? Mid! He’s trying too hard.’”

He’s taken a lot of jabs for being 31 years old, young for the Earth, but somewhat old for a new artist making edgy, hip-hop-adjacent music. “I’m not out here trying to cosplay like, ‘Hey, fellow young people!’” he says. “I’m being Aaron Thomas right now, at the age of 31. But they attack what they know you can’t change. That’s what gives insecurities their power.”

Through all of it, he keeps trying to learn from his heroes, living and dead. He’s deep into a Prince biography, and he just watched a documentary about John Lennon (whom he has a habit of calling “Phil” — he’s still new to the rock thing). He breathed in every moment of the Madonna concert he just saw in Brooklyn. And he tries to keep in mind what Drake told him over dinner not long ago: “Be fearless. Lean into the uncomfortability.”

NO ONE IS PRESSURING Teezo to make a hit song right now. His management and label keep telling him that it can take years to break an artist, that he shouldn’t force it, that there’s plenty of time. But he’s learned enough about the business that he can’t quite believe it. “I’m still like, ‘Nah, I’ve seen the documentaries. You want a hit, I know you do.’” Truth is, no one wants it more than the artist himself.

So right now, a few hours before taking the stage at Madison Square Garden, Teezo is in a midtown recording studio, trying to make it happen. “We’re just looking for something hooky,” he says. “Shamelessly! We’re looking under the control board.” His confidence is boosted at the moment by an outfit he feels good about: brand-new shiny-black down jacket over a black tank top, thick metal chain, mirrored wraparound shades. “When you put that on you, you feel different,” he says. “I’m walking around the studio different. I’m in that mode. It helps the music.”

Jacket by SEKS. Lace top by KOVEN 20:24. Shoes by TELFAR. Spider belt: KOVEN 20:24. Necklace by VITALY. Razor earring by JOHNNY NELSON. Cross Earring by MARTINE ALI. Ear Cuffs: STYLIST’S OWN
Lip and Face Jewelry by INAUREM

On hand today is the producer and songwriter Jeremiah Raisen, a.k.a. Sadpony, who’s at the heart of what may be a nascent rap-rock crossover movement. Among many other credits, he and his brother Justin were key forces on Lil Yachty’s psych-rock departure, Let’s Start Here. Dressed in a Balenciaga hoodie, a bumblebee-colored North Face jacket, and unlaced Timberlands, Raisen has a unique energy, somehow languid and caffeinated all at once. “Do you like the Clash, bro?” he’ll ask a new acquaintance, out of nowhere.

Raisen, who definitely likes the Clash, has arrived at the session with a skittering, almost Gary Glitter-inspired track he made with help from a live guitarist and other musicians, which sounds a lot more like a full song sans vocals than a typical hip-hop beat. “It’s the difference between a beat and a composition,” Teezo says later. (Weirdly, Raisen grew up with Dan Nigro, the producer-songwriter who’s bringing rock sounds into the mainstream from another angle with Olivia Rodrigo.) Also on board for the session today is the one-named producer Lukas, who worked with the Raisen brothers and Yachty on Drake’s “Away From Home,” and is aiming to branch out from hip-hop.

Teezo is learning how to collaborate in the studio, to be more like Prince with the Revolution than solo Prince, and to let go of his self-image as an MC who writes every word himself. He’s not comfortable, though, with co-writers who try to dictate melodies to him or overtly change his sound. He had one like that the other week and ended up not saying a word the entire session. But he likes Raisen, and he’s making a point of inviting lyrical ideas from everyone in the room, including his young A&R guy, Daniel Schultz, and even the journalist following him around. “A session like that is me showing, ‘I want your lyric. Your melody might change all of our lives,’” Teezo says.

Even after a full album in what he refers to as his “rock & boom” style, Teezo still has a beginner’s-mind approach, drawing on what he calls his “elementary” knowledge of rock. “I don’t listen to alternative music,” he says. “So that’s where it gets annoying. It’s like, I don’t know — who am I making this music for? I guess I’ll see you on tour.” At the same time, he’s trying to school himself. “I don’t wanna just paint my nails and be like, ‘Eh, I’m rock & roll.’”

He usually writes in a more traditionally hip-hop fashion, working from verse to chorus, but today, he wants to start with that hook. Pretty soon, he lands on one, injecting the phrase “It’s none of your business” in between guitar chords, alongside some bratty “na na na na’s.” From there, he painstakingly crafts verses, in a vaguely Frank Ocean-like melodic flow, that seem to be about an overly inquisitive romantic partner. The track, it slowly emerges, is meant for the soundtrack for an upcoming kids’ movie, a relatively rare opportunity for a big paycheck from a recording. By the end, Raisen is excited: “This song is just huge,” he says.

Teezo is feeling good, too — he’s made a potential hit without feeling compromised. “We’re in on the pop joke,” he says.

FOR AARON THOMAS, everything changed in July 2016. After a couple of unsuccessful stints at Prairie View A&M University, where he was more focused on partying, DJ’ing, and playing trombone in marching band than attending class, he had just settled in Houston. He landed a job in a restaurant there and was making beats, imagining a behind-the-scenes future in the music business. And he was in love with his girlfriend, who deeply believed in his talent.

One weekend that month, she headed to another city for a girls’ trip, and never came back. A shooting broke out in the parking lot of a nightclub, and she was caught in the crossfire, a random victim. “Her friend calls me,” he recalls, choking up. “I was like, ‘Yo, what’s up?’ She said, ‘You didn’t hear?’ She took a deep breath and said, ‘She got shot last night.’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, she died.’ And it was so final.”

Thomas was shattered. He thought about “being Batman,” heading to the city in question — the name of which he’d prefer not to make public — and trying to get revenge. But instead, he decided to move home to Beaumont, Texas, and dedicate himself to his own music, which no one had supported harder than his girlfriend. He was embarrassed about leaving Houston, and kept his restaurant job there for a while. Sometimes that meant sleeping in a parking lot after his shifts to save the 85-mile trip back home.

In Beaumont, he started spending time in a studio called the White House, where he encountered both support and resentment in the local scene. His emo-influenced style — the skinny jeans, the occasional woman’s top or pink bandanna — raised eyebrows. He pulls up a candid shot on his phone from that era: Teezo in a red sweatshirt and a red headband, his hair teased high, a crucifix dangling from one ear, and next to him, a more conventional-looking frenemy giving him comically obvious side-eye.

“They thought I was gay,” Teezo says, with a shrug. “But I always had girls in my crib.” In fact, while he’s never been officially diagnosed, Teezo thinks he has a sex and porn addiction. “I’ve seen the damage it can cause, the mood swings,” he says. “I want to love genuinely. I don’t want it to be like a physical thing or whatever. I probably should seek treatment.”

The “blatant disrespect” he faced on the local scene could get ugly. While he was hanging out in an SUV outside of another studio in town, someone threw a bottle at him.

But once he made “100 Guns” — which drew directly on his horror over his girlfriend’s death — he was instantly bigger than Beaumont, getting national-press attention and co-signs from major artists. The rapper Trippie Redd became the first of his many famous fans, flying him out to L.A., and public support from Chance the Rapper and Tyler, the Creator — who featured him on his 2021 album, Call Me If You Get Lost, and brought him out on tour — soon followed.

Teezo doesn’t mind admitting that he fully embraced the rock-leaning direction only because people responded to it. “The reason I went down that lane is because, honestly, it worked,” he says. “I got the attention from the alternative thing. Maybe a week before, you know, I was still making rap songs. But that worked. And I just walked down that hall. Which I do a lot. I see what sticks.”

EIGHT YEARS AFTER he first vowed to pursue his own music, Teezo Touchdown is onstage at Madison Square Garden, in the small corner of Travis Scott’s massive stage he’s allowed to use, telling the crowd to believe in themselves. “I want you to know something,” he says, introducing a truncated version of his song “Impossible.” “As long as your heart is beating, as long as you’re alive, don’t ever let anyone tell you your goals are impossible, your dreams are impossible. New York, I am living proof. All your goals are possible!”

As he rushes offstage, Teezo goes right past a group of concertgoers. They all clap for him, minus one guy. “You suck!” he shouts, adding a homophobic slur: “Fucking f—-t.” A fan chimes in with, “Teezo, I fucking love you.” But it may be too late for the artist’s mood. “We have these in-ears and it’s muting almost everything,” he says later. “But that right there — ‘Boo! You suck!’ — that cuts through. Probably because of my insecurities. Or maybe one part of me believes that — when I know that’s not the case.”

In an apparent effort to shake off that moment, Teezo declares it’s time for a “merch run” — a spontaneous appearance at a T-shirt booth. We head up in an elevator, and it gets scary fast. Earlier the same day, he was able to visit Macy’s to get polish for his grills without being recognized a single time, but it’s a different story at an arena packed with nearly 20,000 kids who just saw him onstage. Teens start following him through the halls of the Garden, Pied Piper–style, and it’s getting hard to move.

When he makes it to the booth, he’s able to sign shirts for maybe four minutes before a security guard with a buzz cut shuts the whole thing down. Amid the chaos, though, it feels possible to believe it’s all finally happening, that Drake and Chance and Scott know more than hecklers and hometown haters.

Back in the dressing room, Teezo is still in a pensive mood and keeps playing Prince’s “All the Critics Love U in New York” over the dressing room’s sound system. His struggles with self-belief, he muses, have a spiritual dimension. “Something in myself is telling me, ‘You’re not gonna do it,’” he says. “‘You hear that boo? You hear that “You suck”? They right.’ But I think that’s self-sabotage. It’s good and evil. I think that’s an attack on the good.”

In the end, though, he doesn’t really believe the worst voices in his head. He knows it’s all just starting, even at age 31. “I could sit here and pout,” he says. “I can take all of this off, wipe the glitter off and go apply to any one of these jobs that’s hiring for the holiday season, and Teezo Touchdown is over.”

But that’s not the plan. “I can’t stop right now,” he says. “I’ve chosen to do this.”

Photography Direction by EMMA REEVES. Styling by JENNY HAAPALA. Styling assistance by DOM ALEXANDER. Hair by MONIQUE AVANT. Makeup by KEITA MOORE at THE ONLY AGENCY using PAT MCGRATH LABS. Videographer: ATHINA SONITIS. VFX Designer: MIGUEL FERNANDES, BTS Editor: ADEN KHAN. Lighting Direction by HAYDEN BULLARD. Digital technician: DUCK FEENEY. Styling assistance/Interns by SARAJANE OWUSU and JORDAN PETERSON.

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