For Fans of: Goldlink, Earthgang, or J.I.D.
After a year and a half on the road traversing the globe in support of his groundbreaking and critically acclaimed debut album, blkswn, Smino, the multihyphenate artist, is ready to embark on something new. “I don’t even know how I got to this point right now,” he says.
It’s not too hard to imagine knowing Smino’s creatively rich background. Music runs through his veins; it’s genetically embedded. Smino’s grandfather, father, and mother were musicians, and the rapper and singer began playing drums in his native St. Louis at an early age. He released one of his first solo songs at the age of 16, inspiring him to leave his home and study at Chicago’s Columbia College in 2010. But college was the wrong fit, and the musician dropped out, moving back to St Louis and helping set up its scene before returning to Chi and connecting with his current home at Classick Studios.
His first EP, S!ck S!ck S!ck, released in the fall of 2015 was a quick hit on Soundcloud. Later, he helped form the groundbreaking collective Zero Fatigue. His second EP, blkjptr, dropped only a few months later and quickly established him as a rising Chicago force to watch. After spending the next year making guest appearances and perfecting his own work, Smino unleashed blkswn, which Rolling Stone hailed as one of the 40 best rap albums of 2017.
Festival appearances and a world tour (including an opening slot on SZA’s successful Ctrl tour) followed. Now, he’s eager to reveal the next era of Smino with Noir, his second full-length record. Noir is a record about the present, about life now, he says, an experience that is far more complex and challenging. He’s still writing songs every day, but now his songs reflect a changing Smino, one dealing with “adult shit.” Exponential growth is the reward. “I guess growth for me means understanding shit and being able to make music intentionally,” he says.
There’s no second guessing here. Smino says he was less critical on his reflexes, a result of his new sporadic work method, which saw him making Noir while on the road promoting blkswn. “I just tried to ex blkswn out of my mind like it never happened,” says Smino.
His new album is him on “a happy, lighter end,” he says. “Play this in your PA. Play this with the bass in your car. Play this loud,” Smino adds. “This album is a lot more ass shaking.”
Taking charge was priority number one. Noir finds him moving forward as an even more confident musician fully stepping into his gifts. He produced three tracks, including the album’s intro beat and one featuring fellow Zero Fatigue member Ravyn Lenae. Smino describes producing as more of a hobby. “I don’t sit there making beats, but I’m good at it, so if it calls for it, if I have an idea, I’ll do it,” he says. He’ll always be a writer at heart.
“I try to go all the way the fuck in when I use my voice,” he says. Smino’s clear and concise vocals pepper blkswn, but Noir better articulates his skills as a rapper. “I can fucking rap. And spit,” he boasts. “I feel like I rap a lot better than most niggas.”
The singing is not gone. But Smino does here what he does best: weave in and out of his harmony and flow with the precision and ease of a multifaceted musician of his caliber. As he adds: “I feel like it’s important to utilize the instruments you’ve got.”
Make no mistake: this is no DIY affair. Noir features a variety of Smino’s favorite producers, including LBoogie from THEMPeople and longtime Zero Fatigue collaborator Monte Booker. Smino describes the latter as like a brother. “We have so much chemistry that at this point, we don’t have to be in the room and shit,” Smino says. “We’re basically relying on our chemistry a lot more.”
But working in opposite states, or even different sides of the world, was a motivating challenge for the two. “The process has been real, super fucking scattered because we’ve been busy,” he admits. “But at the same time, we took our time and made sure the shit that’s scattered is still fine-tuned and polished.” Sango, another blkswn producer, also makes two appearances on Noir. “Some people you just work with because the energy is right,” Smino says. “Sango is just somebody where I’ve got good reflexes.”
Noir is about intentional fun. Songs—with titles like “Klink” and “Tequila Mockingbird”—offer a lighter contrast to blkswn. “If sometimes it felt like I was going off a little too much on my tangent shit, I probably didn’t pick those songs,” Smino says.
“Fenty Sex,” featuring Chicago-bred rapper Dreezy, is a loose, sensual number in which Smino says his woman “tastes like some papaya” yet he’s still worrying she’s “some kind of pyro.” “Pizano,” named after the classic Chicago pizza chain, has a bright, quirky rhythm and a sing-a- long-like chorus easy to get stuck in your head. That brightness permeates the record and inspires Smino’s current outlook. “Just have fun with your fucking life,” he says. “That’s really what I was doing when I was making the record: just having fun and living off my own confidence.”
Honesty too gets at the heart of Smino’s new music. If blkswn saw the musician tackling the issues of the day, Noir sees him pull directly from his personal, everyday truth. “I’m not trying to be like anyone else’s art,” Smino says. “I’m just trying to be the art that’s coming out of me. It’s just honest.” It’s no wonder then that Smino’s own production efforts played a role in this latest release. He strikes when the inspiration is hot. “The more I just know myself as an artist, know how I want to present myself, know how I want my shit to look and understand about the business, the more I feel real growth as a man,” he says.
Smino is an artist of substance. Noir is candid and intricately constructed down to the most minute of details. It is also the best representation of Smino himself: profoundly intelligent, awash in emotional depth and forthrightness, yet not afraid to just have a good time.