“Country Grammar” is the most jubilant, jiggy and joyful song that threatens to commit a drive-by in the chorus. As a child going through the throes of elementary school, it wasn’t the lyrics that captivated, but how Nelly rapped―enthusiastically swift and melodically catchy―that could make cocked and ready street sweepers sound like fully loaded super soakers.
Infectious music is the hardest to deny, and Nelly had a sound that could sink into shoulders and cause them to shimmy, grip ears, and cause heads to nod. With a flow smoother than a brown stallion on rollerskates and the undeniable charisma of a modern casanova, the arrival and success of Nelly always made complete sense. He became the shining star of St. Louis; a major midwestern city with no representation in mainstream rap suddenly had one of the biggest artists in hip-hop carrying their name on his back.
The year 2000 introduced Country Grammar to the world, in both a literal and figurative sense. Thanks to his quick rise, a plethora of new eyes and ears were put on his home state of Missouri. Expectations saw Murphy Lee as a worthy successor, the one most likely to follow Nelly’s Air Force Ones into solo stardom. Murphy had a moment but it was only a wrinkle in time―a solar flare instead of shining sun―and while Chingy had far more commercial success under the blaring spotlight, even the “Right Thurr” rapper couldn’t sustain a lasting career. He faded into the position of an artist from the past, yet another wrinkle we remember only when reminiscing. J-Kwon had a hit, Huey had a hit, and Jibbs had a hit―there weren't enough drinks in the club, popping and dropping bodies, nor chains hanging low to keep them afloat forever―but their careers didn't last longer than the length of a ringtone.
Nelly’s dominance almost lasted 10 years, but even his star diminished into a dim glow. The ever-shifting industry brought new names and sounds, even Toronto was able to have a native reach the highest heights rap could offer; the years rolled on without a bright talent hailing from St. Louis appearing to pick up the crown of representation Nelly once wore.
March 14 is considered 314 Day in St. Louis (the city’s area code), a celebration of the city that was created by Young Dip, an STL-born and raised DJ who came up with the concept of giving SL its own day in 2008. The day is about unity, togetherness and honoring the 314. But this year, the city's annual commemoration is special due to one homegrown artist.
As a way of honoring his hometown, Smino released his debut album blkswn three days prior to the industry's designated album release day of Friday. I witnessed through Twitter how the 314 babies upheld the project like a city would do a championship trophy―pride in their city, pride in this project, and pride in the artist.
The sound of Smino's voice is what I first noticed about the 25-year-old, oddly animated and strangely soothing, like a cartoon swan gliding across a purple sea. blkswn greets listeners at the doorstep with a melodic, sung rap that’s becoming a common approach with new rap artists, but even in a world of copies and clones a song like "Wild Irish Roses" stands out. The woozy synths are dreamlike, then comes a voice; a single voice, but the vocals are stacked in a way that the record sounds like he's singing with his two twins. The music and storytelling open up a gateway into the backseat of a hazy mystery machine. The entrancing slow burner turns the simplicity of a casual trip to acquire Backwoods and Wild Irish Roses with a woman he’s lusting for into a hypnotic album opener that puts listeners in the moment as a third wheel. Imagine being Scooby Doo watching a drunk Shaggy try to make a move on a high Velma. There’s something relatable about the intimacy, the intoxication of eagerness, but it’s not an aggressive pursuit―there’s a softness to his singing, a gentle yet dynamic presence, like a heavy breeze in the fall.
It’s a strange intro because it doesn’t tell you who this artist is or who the girl might be, revealing nothing more than a desire for rolling Backwoods, drinking cheap liquor, and the temptation of car sex. The feeling is familiar but not nostalgic, a feeling that this could be my yesterday or my tomorrow―Smino creates a setting that isn’t extraordinary but so painfully commonplace that any man or woman could relate to the experience he’s illustrating. A common man posing as a rapper/singer is what I see while weaving through Smino’s poetic tongue twisters―from drinking E&J to sleeping on silk pillows, mixing Netflix with his D'ussé, black pride and black angst, dealing with drugs and drank like toxic junk food and not like a strung out addict―this isn’t a rapper posing for 'Gram followers but an artist taking portraits of a life not foreign to those who will listen. There’s a relatability to his words, but mostly because they feel like words that were lived, lyrics based in reality.
Smino’s voice is an instrument, not just used for words but to add sound and texture. There’s no commitment to style but a constant effortless gear switch―singing becomes rapping, rapping becomes singing―that blurs this versatility as if he were two artists sharing a single body. Rapping isn’t done in the traditional sense―words are stretched and stutters add personality, the way words are enunciated help to create these bizarre rhyme patterns. The English language is just a toy to be manipulated.
One of my favorite vocal performances on the album comes from theMIND, a rising talent closely associated with Mick Jenkins who hails from Chicago. On the song “Edgar Allan Poe’d Up,” a brilliantly titled ode to vices and poor decisions, theMIND brings to his verse this drunken hiccup that will make fans of Rick and Morty envision the genius, drunken scientist. It's a small detail that adds character to his feature, a minor touch of vocal personality that keeps each song feeling fresh. From the off-kilter swing of drums to the unpredictable zig-zag flows, the content is delivered in a manner far from bland, stale or safe. Being so committed to originality will be praised by some and receive contempt from others, the risk artists face when running from conventional methods.
Smino’s volatile changes in style feel more controlled than schizophrenic, a voice full of soul that knows how to channel the energy that booms from his gut. Every note, vocal inflection, and speedy attack feels calculated, orchestrated to keep each moment more enthralling than the last.
An early highlight comes on “Glass Flows.” Fellow Midwest upstart Ravyn Lenae is a guest vocalist, dueling with Smino's vocals like the two are fencing masters swinging their swords with more elegance than malice. It’s a seamless dance the way their vocals weave around each other, they’re like Martin and Gina in the last season of Martin—together but separate, the bitter poetry of watching something once beautiful fall apart.
Voices fill up every space of blkswn, Smino is the painter who doesn’t leave any of the canvas white, like a painting by Pollock but with less eccentric brush strokes. No guest features go to waste, either. It’s beautiful to see so many women appear on the album―six in total―from the heart-hugging sounds of Akenya to Noname’s surprise appearance. Each guest is a strong source of soul that perfectly assists Smino in taking ears to church.
The latest single, “Father Son Holy Smoke,” has bounce, an infectious melody, and one of the best rap performances on the album―by far the song I would champion as a perfect example of all his greatest strengths perfectly blended into an audio smoothie. “Anita,” the album’s first single, is also an excellent exhibition of skill and potential commercial appeal; the same can be said about “Netflix & Dusse”―the song for millennial couples who would rather be couch potatoes than bar hoppers. There are other times where his unorthodox word-flipping style will most commonly be related to Acid Rap-era Chance and it's done with excellence—his Chicago and St. Louis influences have found a harmony on blkswn.
Smino has the voice and the lyricism, but it's Monte Booker that is in control of the production. If Smino is the magician, Booker is the hat he pulls the rabbits out of―the architect behind the warm, hazy foundation that gives the album an ethereal sensation. By staying away from trap textures, he creates a world of nimbus clouds for Smino’s voice to ride upon.
I’m not surprised Monte co-produced Noname’s “Sunny Duet” with Cam O'bi, blkswn’s production feels like a distant relative of Telefone’s brightness, with a sprinkle of Jowin’s sedated wooziness that can be heard on Isaiah Rashad’s “By George (Outro).” Monte has a warmth to his instrumentation that matches the amiability of the voices who add hues to his canvases. If I had to give this album a color, it would be the pink and violet seen on the cover art, with cool yellows and a few blushing reds, but most of the mid-tempo grooves and ambitious rhythms aren’t overwhelmingly bright.
In the cloudy synths, swinging drums, thumping keys and shining chords, there’s nothing but color, like a rainbow of lava lamps in a smoke session. The music never goes dark or dull but there are moments like “Long Run” when the words are heavier, speaking on high murder rates and frustrations with America―for all it’s lightness there are plenty of raw messages sprinkled in Smino’s lyricism. The singing and usage of melodies may appeal to the ears, but it’s his skills as a rapper that will make fans of lyricism return to this one.
Smino didn’t go the route of a safe debut, he didn’t play in the arena of the popular kids, but dared to present a body of work a little more unorthodox, sultry and soulful than the sound currently dominating the rap field. He isn’t comparable to Nelly, there’s no big radio single that’s going to transform him into a household name, but he speaks a similar language—I’m not referring to his usage of "hurr" and "thurr," but rather the unapologetic language of the Midwest that presents something new instead of following a successful format. Nelly didn’t try to imitate the sound of New York, and Smino isn’t here trying to copy Atlanta―confidence in his sound and love for his roots is why the city cheers for his success, and why he has a chance to be successful.
As the latest artist to be enthusiastically swift and melodically catchy, Smino's able to make the ordinary sound like entering a fantasy. After 17 years, the quiet city of St. Louis has a new voice to ring loud for them. His name is Smino—the best possible prospect to teach country grammar to a new generation.
By Yoh, aka Yohphy Lee, aka @Yoh31.