If You’re Sleeping on Smino, You’re Slippin’
I wasn’t checking for Smino before this week. Call me out of touch, out of the loop, old. (I pin it on being busy, but whatever.) Regardless of the why, Smino wasn’t on my radar. My bad.
The first conversation I had after digging out of the snow on Wednesday morning was about Smino’s incredibly strong debut, blkswn, which hit iTunes on Tuesday (March 14—or 3/14, a nod to the St. Louis artist’s 314 area code) via Downtown Records after a few days bubbling on Soundcloud. The folks in the office who’d heard the album were impressed, and they encouraged me to check it out, so I did. I was blown away.
Today, Rick Ross’s new album Rather You Than Me arrives—his ninth in 11 years. I haven’t had a chance to give it a spin, but I’ve heard the buzz. The early word: Rozay is back in true luxury rap form—all money clips, black bottles, cold nines, and gleaming Bentleys, aka, all dark nights everything. Also: it sounds plush. A soft bed of gangsta rap soul—the perfect base coat for Ross to paint pictures of the BAWSE life on. For Rozay fans, it sounds like a winning recipe.
For me, though, it sounds like more of the same. And not in the sense that Rather You Than Me is a Rick Ross retread (as I mentioned, I haven’t heard it), but more in the sense that once again, Ross has stayed true to form and delivered on aesthetics. Back in 2013, when the Ross wave was really breaking and he was popping up on the cover of Rolling Stone and in the pages of GQ, I did some writing about how I felt that the rise of Ross signaled a significant shift in how hip hop fans and critics approached the music. I wasn’t the only person writing about this, of course—Ross’s seemingly loose relationship with #facts has been well covered—but to me, in a roundabout way, Ross opened the door for the likes of A$AP and Drake, where style mattered more than substance, even as substance (or at least the appearance of it) sealed the seams. IMO, this leads to #hypebeasts and #fuckbois and “doing it for the gram” and all sorts of other shit, but that’s another conversation, and again, maybe I’m just old. There’s a bigger argument to make about Wayne and Kanye really opening the door to the Pitchfork-ification of hip hop—and I could even trace this back to The Blueprint, probably, if you really had some time—but let’s move on.
All of this is to say that when I was writing about A$AP and Ross back then, I was frustrated to see some of the codes that I’d long held dear switch up. For years, being a head was like having a faith—there was a system of teachings and beliefs at stake and it was important to learn, internalize and subscribe to them if you really wanted to be down. It was sort of like the streets in that way—to talk about it, you had to be about it and, in many ways, be from it. You had to know. And then, hip hop truly went pop—not in the Bad Boy & the Family, ghetto fabulous, “It’s All About The Benjamins” way, but in the “it’s all about the music, man!” way. A hit was a hit, no matter who made it, where they were from, how (what up, ghostwriters!) or why. And anyone, from anywhere, could say whatever they wanted to say about that, because suddenly only one question truly mattered: how does it sound?
For the broader community of music fans, this was a great development. Kanye’s done some truly epic shit, as has Drake, and they’re not alone. For the O.G.’s, it’s been an… adjustment, to say the least. But as time has worn on, and the aesthetic argument has gained ground and seeped into every corner of the culture, there have been some really positive payoffs across the spectrum that I didn’t totally anticipate in the early days of this shift. Future (with Metro, 808 Mafia, and Nard & B by his side), for instance, has done a great job of finding new sounds while staying rooted in the world that he’s from. Kendrick has also found really interesting new ways to update classic hip hop for a more modern age. And Chance has been able to bring a whole new way of hearing and seeing hip hop into the mainstream—and he’s already used that visibility to drive some really positive and important conversations about change, which is an amazing thing. (Yo, Chance, #salute.)
Which brings me back to Smino, the son of St. Louis musicians and spirtual heir if not a student of the blues—Albert King and Little Milton come from his hometown—and schooled in the big city sounds of Chicago jazz and swing. blkswn is an accomplished, deeply textured debut, with influences ranging from Neo-Soul to Mac Miller to ATCQ. The sound of the South rolls under the records, referenced in the accents, harmonies and drum patterns, but the St. Louis of Nelly and Chingy are a thing of the past. There’s a hint of Chance, some slight nods to Kendrick, and a lot here that reminds me of Anderson .Paak.
More than anything, I hear a new voice, free to try something new that sounds cool and different and unafraid to stand on its own. That’s probably the thing he shares in common with the other artists mentioned above—Chance, Kendrick, Anderson .Paak—they all sound fresh, inspired.
After sitting with the album on Wednesday, my first impression was that Smino—maybe more than anyone I’ve heard in years—shows signs of the creativity and experimentation that early OutKast flashed on Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. OK, perhaps not quite as sharp lyrically, and certainly not as street as OutKast’s debut (blkswn is more chill with your girl music than ride around town your boys music), but Smino’s ability to find cohesion within a broad mix of styles and collaborators suggests an OutKast–like promise to me. And that’s saying something, no doubt.
Of course, OutKast comparisons are a heavy weight for any young artist to carry—after all, Smino is only 25, and just one album in. But whether he ends up delivering a series of classics or not is kind of beside the point. What’s most interesting to me here is that blkswn marks yet another example of an ever-growing trend of young artists who value the aesthetics of music above all else (backstory, street rep, posturing, whatever). And let’s be real: digressive Rozay discussion above aside, all credit goes to Kanye, who wrenched the conversation away from keeping it real and back toward the art, influencing a whole generation in the process. Thank Yeezus for that. And as has been noted before—and as blkswn further drives home—we’re living in another hip hop golden age as a result.
Lead photo by Taylor Madison