“To put it colorfully: you can only juice a fruit once. On the second go, you’ll be drinking all rind, and rinds are bitter. There’s the fear: artists who debut strong have a choice to make. They can either chance it and try to get some juice from their old fruit, juice a new fruit of the same variety, or they can venture outward and bring something wholly new to their audience.” —Donna-Claire Chesman, "How Noname & 6LACK Avoided the 'Sophomore Slump'"
Smino’s acclaimed debut album, 2017's blkswn, brings to mind Kendrick Lamar’s excellent 2011 debut, Section.80. The two aren’t artistically or conceptually comparable, but they share a notable sense of quality and creative identity. Section.80 was the first project to display Kendrick’s unique gifts as a world-building storyteller. No prior release was as thoughtful, meticulous, and concept-focused.
In a similar vein, blkswn is a jumbotron viewing of Smino’s talents. The St. Louis-born hip-hop hybrid created an offering that seized a collection of songs from the broad, enamoring skill set he was in the process of perfecting.
blkswn did what all artists hope a strong debut will do: provide access behind locked doors and latched gates. The name Smino became known worldwide following the album's March release; not only did the music travel across the globe, but the rapper did as well. Without a Drake feature or a sensationalized, viral social media moment, Smino was attracting attention solely from the art he made. He now stands out as one of the most exciting, eclectic new acts to emerge from the Midwest.
Following up a renowned release comes with newfound pressure. blkswn was a bar-setting album, and that bar was set rather high. After a year of strong features―Cam O'bi’s “TenderHeaded,” Ambi Lyrics’ “The Run Around,” Tobi Lou’s “Troop,” Noname’s “Ace” and Sango’s “Khlorine—and a few notable loosies—”Pecans” (from late 2017 but still worth mentioning), “New Coupe, Who Dis?,” “Coupe Se’ Yern," and “in my chillin”—Smino’s second coming is already upon us.
The anticipated sophomore album is called NOIR. French film critic Nino Frank defined film noir as "black film" in 1946, sidestepping the traditional crime film definition. Knowing Smino’s affinity for incorporating a strong black message in his music, the concept of a black film would be a welcome approach. blkswn was a promising introduction of an artist built for the long haul; how will NOIR solidify Smino’s rise?
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.
A woman’s voice. Familiar. Sounds like Jean Deaux. Album advances should come with liner notes. I’m not complaining, though. She has a speaking voice made for quiet storms and soothing crying babies. Smino has arrived. Melodies built up to the verse. He’s an audio Lego builder. The man knows how to turn his voice into the most colorful instrument. The production is thin but transforming, building around him. He’s like Magneto but instead of controlling metal he controls sound. Nice bassline. The slow speed is a drunk kind of drowsy: when you’re aware and awake but could use a bed of feathers. “Wild Irish Roses” from blkswn was also a mellow intro that was more of a warm blanket rather than hot coals. Hmmm. There are some grabbing lines, especially when he starts to take off, but it does drag a bit. I can’t recall the last album that began with an intro that’s four minutes long. Not bad, but not in love.
Now, this is what I love. How his a cappella vocals are stacked and how the beat builds around him is brilliant. The bounce is infectious as the chicken pox. Another Follies shoutout. The acclaimed strip club is slowly becoming mentioned more than Magic City. The Lion King and Belly are two movies that will forever make for grabbing rap lyrics. Songs like “L.M.F.” are where Smino sounds like a natural evolution of a music world that was once dominated by Nelly, T-Pain, and Lil Wayne. He has the lines that make you rewind, mixed with the melodies and songwriting that appeals to a broad audience of ears. “L.M.F.” is a fleshed-out record that shows all sides of Smino. I love the breakdown at the end. Footwork on Lei Wulong from Tekken.
The second single. Love the bassline and the rattling, peculiar percussion. I wasn’t in love with Smi’s pitched-up vocals initially, but it’s grown on me. Sorta like Future’s “King's Dead” verse. The helium-high cadence is going to be very popular, I see it. This beat swings enough to be placed in an elementary school playground. Lines upon lines like bingeing cocaine with Charlie Sheen in the ‘90s. I love how in the second verse he switches the flow and again, the beat truly builds around Smi’s vocals. He’s not a rapper being directed by the production, but a rapper directing the flow of the beat. This is going to be fun at shows.
4. “TEQUILA MOCKINGBIRD”
I have to assume this is a play on To Kill a Mockingbird. Another great vocal buildup that grabs. The energy is great. The bounce is sending me through the roof. I’m assuming Sango did this beat. I can’t tell the sonic origins but it reminds me of Da Rocinha III, the Brazil-inspired project he dropped a few years ago. Sonically, Smino is expanding his palette while applying all the tricks that make his songs stand out. He’s singing with all the St. Louis in his heart. This is a good vocal showcase. The drums knocking harder than kids banging out the “Grindin'” beat in their lunchrooms. The woman’s voice is back.
I’m not sure what the narration has to do with the story, but we have more great production with soothing singing. Smino’s gift for playing with words is reason enough to revisit his songs. I love the slower tempo and how he’s weaving through the sweet production. Add another "Kamehameha" line to the lexicon of Dragon Ball bars that are very prevalent in hip-hop. Not an easy word to work into a rhyme. Hmm. This hook is something. This snare is crisp as the first sip of McDonald’s Sprite. Next to “L.M.F.,” this is an early favorite. He let the production breath. Switch up. Someone is talking. Doesn’t sound like Smino. I like how the production switched. Whoever it is he’s from St. Louis. You can hear it in the accent.
6. "SUMMER SALT" w/ Bari
It’s going to take another listen before I connect how the snippets work the album. Oh, he’s rapping rapping. He’s freezer-cool on this beat, but the bars are getting off. Smino has more rap flows than Atlanta has Waffle Houses. The creativity is impressive. There’s an effort to make each song its own world. Bari sounds good. I haven't sat with his music, but I'm interested by his short effort. Really good record. An early standout.
7. “Z4L” w/ Bari & Jay2
Pitched-up vocals. He’s talking to someone. I like this already. This imagery is something else. "Green diamonds in my charm that’s a frozen salad.” Yeah, he’s painting these records with the kind of lyricism that feels rare with an artist who is so melodic. “Makeup on my acne like I’m trying to hide a zit” is the kind of lyric you only come up with through experience. Bari has a good voice. A little bridge? It's real short but effective. The way Jay2 is rapping I thought he was Saba. He came out in with a captivating supersonic flow. He is pretty consistent with strong verses on Smi records. Where is his album? If he's rapping like this, sign me up. Smino can sell a hook. Too good.
First a song about tequila and now Merlot. I hope he’s securing the liquor sponsorship. Whoa, this took a woozy turn. The production captures how it feels to stumble out of the club after one too many. “The blacker the berry.” This is a wine-drunk anthem. The Trick Daddy Slip-n-Slide line is nice. The same silk material found in Smino’s hoodies was used to make this song. Another Fenty reference. In this second verse, the lyrics give a bit more perspective on Smino’s life after blkswn. Brief, but a nice introspective moment. Another good song.
9. "WE GOT THE BISCUITS"
He can make songs. That’s without question. Everything sounds good, well-written, and well-executed. He’s leaning into these smooth, ethereal vibes. Makes me wonder what a Smino and Clams Casino record would sound like. “Her booty flat like Converse” hahaha. An atmosphere to get lost within. “Tear the pussy proper, it’s a meniscus,” athletes will appreciate this hook. Talking about his city. Each record has plenty of performative tricks. That’s another gift found in Smino’s music, the tricks are delivered in abundance. The audience—his audience—is never out of focus. Okay, this vocal buildup is insane. Sounds like a bunch of souls escaping Azkaban. What a weird, haunting beat. The outro will raise the hair on the back of a black cat. Another vocal skit. Smi talking about it being cold in LA sounds like he’s changing the radio. Wait, I don’t know what’s happening. But the beat is NASTY. These drums are grimy. Oh, nah. I need an entire track.
A complete sonic switch up. From outdoor mayhem to suit-and-tie comfort. I love these keys. The singing/rapping has become so seamless he can switch the two without effort. It’s the rap version of being ambidextrous. Okay, this is a vibe. Production selection has been exquisite. “I thank the Lord every time I see my niggas.” Another strong performance all the way around.
I’m still unable to see the bigger theme here… WOOO!!! This is a beat! The rhythm and tempo are perfect for him. The fast flow is explosive. If he was a runner his feet would be on fire. Eleven tracks in and it sounds like he’s still just heating up. My head is spinning in the best kind of way. Green Goblin reference in the hook. Love how this record is structured. Another rapper with a DJ Ak/Everyday Struggle bar. The things he’s doing with his voice would impress Young Thug. Each record has been well constructed. He’s as much an architect as he is an artist.
12. "LOW DOWN DERRTY BLUES"
The sequence was perfectly seamless. R&B-esque Smi. Who did this beat!? This is magic personified. It feels like taking your lover to Merlin’s castle for a nightcap. The chords are truly mood-setting. Timbaland and Missy Elliott would appreciate the hell out of this one. Oh, this is a song! I love the flow, the energy, the way this beat is moving with the fluidity of flubber. It’s beautifully strange; an alien. A skit. A hilarious one. He’s shuffling through T.V. channels. Smi is doing a skit. It’s taking me back to OutKast and how good their skits were.
13. “FENTY SEX” w/ Dreezy
I can’t believe no one has made a “FENTY SEX” song yet. Brilliant. If Rihanna doesn’t get on the remix I’m going to assume she really did a pivot toward solely focusing on makeup. One of my favorites flows on the album thus far. It’s a walking-on-water performance. Smino is very aware of the women in his fanbase. His music feels curated to appeal to women’s ears as much as those of males. There’s no bitches, hoes, or dragging women for the sake of saying what rappers are known to say. Dreezy! She’s barring up. Smi always gets strong guest verses. Dreezy has such potential to make a run. I hope her next album elevates her status and really puts emphasis on how potent her pen is.
14. “BAM 2x”
This record is hitting all the right buttons. He’s in a zone of his own. Another short record. Not a big, bold standout but it continues the consistent streak of records that showcase the many ways he approaches making records filled with pop culture references and ear-massaging melodies. He just talked about turning up King of Diamonds.
15. "KRUSHED ICE” w/ Valee
OH! Now, this is a sudden switch up. I need Uncle Luke or Too Short on this one. The drums are rattling and the bass is a wild beast off the leash. Smi’s flow is so laid-back despite there being an earthquake all around him. A Squidward and Bikini Bottom bar. Getting strong Lil Wayne nostalgia from the verse. 2008 Carter III leak Wayne. Loving this one. VALEE!! Oh shit. His flow is perfect for this beat. Damn, I’m convinced Valee doesn’t write raps but raps his journal entries. He has created a form of rap that’s a lifestyle status update over thumping production. Not a slight, he could rap his grocery list and I would be captivated.
No song sounds alike. Production is broad. Hard! Real hard-hitting. Yep! I’m hearing a potential anthem with this hook. The flow needs a flu shot. The drop doesn’t come when you expect it, that’s a nice touch. Keep me on my toes. Something about this record feels like a commercial break. Strange placement at the end of the album, but I’m glad it’s here.
17. "MF GROOVE” w/ Ravyn Lenae
The bassline is shaking my headphones off my face. It’s another unexpected sonic transition that’s otherworldly R&B. Ravyn Lenae doing the background vocals. The two have a strong chemistry, and the record sounds stunning. It’s like a mermaid and a merman in the studio together recording a love song 20,000 leagues under the sea. Funny how much contemporary music leans heavily into the soundscapes André 3000 was tapping into with The Love Below. This is a masterful arrangement. The breakdown is just showing off at this point. It’s the half-court shot that goes in even though you won the game by 60 points.
I wonder why this is called “VERIZON.” “My momma named me Christopher just like Wallace.” Didn’t love the out-of-breath flow Smino started with but I like how easy he moved into a better-suited style. He’s riding the beat like a master skateboarder. Interesting closure. Doesn’t feel like a finale, really. Very rare for me to feel indifferent about the intro and outro of an album. Smino is talking about losing his phone and the Lyft driver brought it. Shoutout to all the Lyft drivers. The real MVPs of the world.
Final (first-listen) thoughts on NOIR.
NOIR may stand for black film, but the album is a crayon box of vibrant songs. If you cut Smino’s sophomore offering open it would bleed an audio rainbow. Artistically, the music sounds like the rightful successor to blkswn. He doesn’t repeat any tricks; NOIR is an entirely new playbook but written with the consideration of what his audience knows him for: melodic and warm songs riddled with sharp-witted lyricism.
NOIR takes the Smino palette and explores the creative margins of his sound and style. There are no moments like “Anita” or “Netflix & Dusse” that are easily digestible. NOIR is built upon a variety of ideas existing outside the box. Smino found an interesting middle between playing to his strengths and pushing the boundaries of what he’s known for.
If this is an album themed around the television, this isn’t flipping through basic cable, but rather appreciating the channels that are deeper in the guide, where the programs speak to an audience with wide-ranging tastes. The album is a bit long, with too many ideas packed into one project, but it does give you a broad menu for your dining experience.
What NOIR tells me about Smino is how the young star is still testing the waters of his artistic realm. He is pushing his pen—both as a lyricist and songwriter—while seeking new ways to utilize his voice. Even with standout production, the alluring artist remains the most interesting centerpiece of his project. The loudest statement NOIR makes after the first listen is that Smino isn’t a victim of stagnancy.
blkswn teased it, but NOIR confirms it: Smino is building brick by brick a musical world that is uniquely his own.
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