‘blkswn’ was a long time coming.
Smino’s rise to prominence was paved with lauded guest appearances - his verse on Noname’s “Shadow Man” brought his distinctive sound to a new audience, whilst his contribution to the leaked Big Sean/Chance the Rapper cut “Living Single” sent him into the mainstream. All the while, the St. Louis-born rapper quietly honed his craft, releasing two EPs - 2015’s ‘S!CK S!CK S!CK EP’ and 2016’s ‘blkjptr.’ For longtime fans of Smino, the wait has been unbearable.
Despite his St. Louis lineage, Smino finds his place amongst Chicago’s next-gen rap scene - he counts artists such as Noname, Ravyn Lenae, theMIND and Akenya as his contemporaries. Although he’s fallen in with this well-respect clique, Smino brings his own unique feel to ‘blkswn.’ His bars contrast with featuring artists on cuts like “Edgar Allan Poe’d Up” and “Silk Pillows,” where guest verses carve their own distinctive niche within Smino’s greater vision.
Having only previously released EPs, ‘blkswn’ is quite the achievement - crafting an hour long, eighteen-track rap album is no mean feat. The album’s seamless transitions blur tracks together, the work of producer Monte Booker. His largely sample-free instrumentals lend a smooth backing to Smino’s rhymes - smoothness that’s only compounded by the flexibility of Smino’s flow. It’s no coincidence that Booker and Smino have been collaborating since 2015.
Thematically, Smino covers a lot of ground. Duets “Glass Flows” and “Silk Pillows” explore the trials of intimate relationships, whilst “Blkoscars” finds Smino edging towards harsh gangster posturing. “Ricky Millions” is an introspective slice of conscious rap, another niche into which Smino treads. It’s this refusal to be categorised that keeps the album feeling fresh - though he identifies as “future funk rap,” he careens wildly within that self-imposed limit. It’s largely a question of personal taste as to whether you enjoy his stilted delivery or his smoother flows - I’m definitely partial to the latter. “Ricky Millions” also includes an impressive interpolation of “My Boo” by Ghost Town DJ’s, better known as the track that scored 2016’s #RunningManChallenge. Producers JBird and Monte Booker flip the classic 90s dance hit into a languid melody, which makes for an engaging reinvention instead of a contrived distraction.
His lyrical content is varied, which makes for an ever-interesting listen. Whilst one-note albums tend to unsuccessfully rehash the same ideas, daring records divide their focus amongst a host of ideas and scenarios. From self-assured braggadocio to introspective soul-searching, Smino finds lyrical footing in any and all situations. Most impressively, he handles conscience rap like Killer Mike, favouring pithy political statements over clichéd melodrama. In one memorable line on “Father Son Holy Smoke,” he raps:
I'm learning to teach my kids about agriculture
F.D.A approving murder burgers
The bullets ain't the only thing that hurt us…
Both Smino and ‘blkswn’ thrive amongst collaborators - take “Glass Flow,” for instance, in which he trades bars with Ravyn Lenae. The pair seamlessly throws the chorus back and forth, impressively smooth with their transitions. Even on less dynamic tracks, such as the hilariously-titled “Edgar Allan Poe’d Up,” Smino pairs well with guest TheMIND. The trick is artistic, not commercial, motivation – if there was a real commercial tactic at play, surely the biggest ticket feature wouldn’t be a hidden one...
Noname’s closing verse on “Amphetamine” brings the project to a perfect close. Just as a Smino verse closed out her debut mixtape, ‘Telefone,’ Noname punctuates his eight-minute closer with her own signature style. Invoking Jesus, Lauryn Hill and a thirst for money, she’s the cherry atop an already-impressive cake. Then, just like that, it’s over. The album loops back to “Wild Irish Roses,” but I let it run.
‘blkswn’ is one of the most engaging debut albums in recent memory - lyrically inventive, sonically unique and artistically indulgent, it represents the new school at the peak of its powers. Boasting something for everyone, the diverse record showcases an artist who’s impressively surefooted in his experimentation. Smino’s relative obscurity can only last so long.