Courtesy of Smino

The various sounds across the hip-hop landscape are often region-locked. Describing a singular artist as either East or West Coast can simplify them to a certain sound and aesthetic. The recent burst of Chicago’s rap bubble has been a breath of fresh air for modern hip-hop. For possibly the first time, Chicago has a definite scene. The recent exposure is so rejuvenating because a singular idea, sound, or style didn’t follow with its fulfillment. Chicago’s scene is enigmatic because it isn’t locked by a singular approach, possibly due to its youth. No two artists are doing the same thing and every young MC has something distinct to offer to Chicago’s palette—which is why the St. Louis-born, Chicago-made rapper Smino is such a perfect fit. 

Smino’s debut album blkswn behaves like a love letter to both cities he calls home. Smino, who is performing a sold-out show at Bottom Lounge on April 26, has spoken at length to say that just because he belongs to the Chicago scene, it doesn’t mean he’s going to leave St. Louis behind. He declared as much even with his album’s release date, March 14—or 314, which is the area code of his hometown. Smino’s manner of rhyming and general style don’t necessarily evoke the vibe of either city. It feels like an amalgamation of influences; trying to define it would limit its prowess. Like the Midwest itself, Smino’s music is a combination of cultures.

Every track or project Smino has released so far usually credits its production to Monte Booker in the liner notes. Smino and Monte are each other’s secret weapons. Both have made laudable music on their own, but together they are a force to be reckoned with. Monte himself is producing some of the most engrossing beats across the city. As much as this album is Smino’s chance to prove himself, it is also Monte’s. The songs produced together offer more of the same, but that is in no way a shortcoming. If something isn’t broken, why fix it? And that mentality is exactly what Smino and Monte follow on blkswn.

At certain key moments, blkswn does find Monte and Smino branching out and testing the waters for possible new directions. The title’s eleventh track, “B Role,” takes the two on a detour from their signature dreamy style and down a more nightmarish path. The track opens with lyrics that are quickly darker than what we’ve heard prior: “I just wanna feel / Like my favorite artist still real / Like my daddy still a superhero.” Smino and Monte pollute their trademark future funk with heavy guitar loops and bombastic production. It elicits a corruption in their harmonic system as Smino’s sing-song affectation battles against Monte’s rolling drums. By the time the second verse rolls around, it seems as if Smino gets frustrated and weary as he powers through his words with an energy contrary to blkswn’s gentle ambience thus far. It’s a trial of experimentation, a welcome departure that quickly fits into the rest of the album, as Monte and Smino use the following track, “blkoscars,” to audibly regain their footing.

Self-pride gleams throughout blkswn. Smino, often referring to himself in third person, sings his own praises, but he never threatens arrogance. As his wordplay excels in each track, his pride feels more than deserved. And any brashness is abated by the sense of camaraderie that Smino never forgoes. The entire album already exemplifies how much he and Monte complement one another. Yet in his lyrics there are numerous reminders of the friends and family he wouldn’t be here without. On the title track he sings, “Stick with my familia / We go back like Girbauds and wife beaters / Back in the space when they tried to delete us / We blew G’s and stay G’d up.” The album’s features do more than enough to solidify this. In the opening of the lively “Innamission” he guides a crowd in a chant of his crew Zero Fatigue, comprised of Smino, Monte, singer Ravyn Lenae, and rapper Jay2, who both feature on blkswn. In conjunction with his Zero Fatigue compatriots are Akenya, theMIND, Bari, Via Rosa, Drea Smith, Jean Deaux, and Noname. As much as Smino uses  blkswn as his formal introduction, he also makes it one for his friends. There’s a new wave of Chicago MCs breaking out into the world, and blkswn is a more than satisfactory inauguration for them.

If there is anything to dislike about the album, which is hard to find, it would be that Smino and Monte’s sound is sometimes too uniform. It often becomes difficult to distinguish when one song ends and another begins. But that’s also what allows the listener to just waltz right through blkswn’s eighteen-song tracklist.

Yet throughout its runtime, blkswn never seems to concentrate on a central idea or thesis; whether this is a fault or not is up to the listener. Some might prefer an album with a concentrated message, but to me, blkswn never feels like it needs one. blkswn should be seen as a profile of its creator and his many facets. After two EPs and multiple singles on SoundCloud, blkswn is Smino’s introduction to the wider world.

There has always been this notion about Blackness being synonymous with things dark or morose, a starless sky or a room devoid of all color. Even the character of the Black Swan in Swan Lake is famously portrayed as being antithetical to its far more revered White counterpart. On his debut, Smino subverts the notion of Blackness as something inherently wrong. When talking about the song “blkoscars,” Smino told that “The coldest shit about being Black is you’re kind of just ahead of the curve naturally… Your access to cool shit just comes out of the air… It’s already through our ancestors, the music and different crazy styles.” He embraces the image of the Black Swan and brings forth the inherent beauty in Blackness.

blkswn is not a perfect record; it’s highly ambitious and there are flaws to be found within those yearnings. But when it shines, it shines bright. Such an alluring sense of Smino’s personality is imbued throughout blkswn. There’s an ambience of youthful energy that keeps you eager for what he’s going to do next. Smino is out here spreading love and beauty and breaking down barriers. Chicago is full of young visionaries on the verge of making it big, and Smino feels right at home among them.

Best tracks: Glass Flows, Spitshine, Anita, Blkoscars, Innamission, Amphetamine.

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