As a person who has lived in the Tri-State area for the past 26 years, it pains me to say that the East Coast hasn't been the epicenter of hip-hop lately. We've maintained relevancy for three straight summers with anthems like OOOUUU, Unforgettable, Bodak Yellow, and Mo Bamba; but for a while now, the East hasn't strong-armed the game on a national level like the days of Wu-Tang, Bad Boy, and Roc-A-Fella.
What led me to take inventory of the power rankings for the four major regions was the sublime dominance of the Midwest in 2018. The overwhelming talent pouring out of Chicago featuring the poetic wordsmith Noname, the multisyllabic raconteur Saba, and the bombastically versatile Joey Purp to name a few, will assert the city as chief of the region. Freddie Gibbs, from nearby Gary, Indiana, and Detroit’s Payroll Giovanni, Sada Baby and Black Milk further strengthen the Midwest's claim with new material worthy of end-of-the-year list consideration.
Just south of the Chi is St. Louis: a metropolis heralded for its Cardinals and its Gateway Arch. Here to place its hip-hop scene back on the map for 2018 and beyond is the eclectic presence of Smino.
From North St. Louis, Christopher Smith Jr. has an artistry as vibrant as autumn's foliage. His multi-faceted talent was on full display throughout NOIR, the follow-up project to the 27-year-old rapper official debut blkswn from 2017. Painting Smino's style with a few broad strokes or simply typecasting him "avant-garde" would be an unfair glance. At a run-time just under an hour, NOIR is a genre-blending effort deep-rooted with hip-hop, neo-soul, funk, and RnB traditions that are remixed with an exotic twist. Although he's fairly new to public consciousness among music fans, Smino has been harnessing his craft since elementary school. "'In first grade, I wrote my first rap on my homework. I got in trouble because I was talking about robbing people and stuff—I was 7 or 8 years old,' he remembered, laughing."
Growing up in a household surrounded by music only furthered his early development. "I'm a musician. I'm into everything. My mama sang and my dad played piano—Sunday morning you can catch them still doing that at church." With hymnals and instrumentation embedded in the Smith lineage, it's no mystery how Smino became drawn to his current profession. What separates himself from many of his peers is the unique presentation of complex lines coupled with melodies that effortlessly toggle between sung and rapped. One can tell such dense and layered music is a result of years exposure to sound and dedicated practice. A novice's attempt would only create disjointed confusion; on NOIR, the listener is taken on a techni-colored journey that "neatly" explores the boundaries of audio recordings.
Lead singles are often mission statements to new and old fans alike. Lyrically, visually, and sonically, L.M.F. is an introduction to the unconventional world of this project:
Said she Rafiki, you a lion, Mufasa
Baby ain't nothing ’bout me PG, rated X for extraordinary
The Mary got me merry, now I'm singing like Mary Mary
The coupe going stupid, call it Cupid it's February
Lil boo got them juices, heal me up with the elderberry
Typhoon in that Poom Poom, taste better when it’s vegetarian
I milk the game like moo-moo-moo, bitch get out the way
A St. Louis nigga give you Jason Voorhees or Jayson Tatum
The Afrobeat-inspired production, handled by a familiar Sango, sounds like a cut that could easily wind up in the live-action remake of The Lion King. The fun and light-hearted bounce allow a canvas for Smino to create an authentic painting, one that's outlined with wordplay and colored in with a lively vocal performance. It may seem chaotic at first, but the infectious nature of the song will draw you back for multiple plays and a deeper dive into the music. The rest of NOIR operates in a similar fashion. The duality of this album is a strength in and of itself, which lends to the high replay value. It's great for passive listening as the soulful and smooth production from long-time confidant Monte Booker, paired with the variety of flows and melodies by Smino, makes for something to chill and vibe to. Pay closer attention to the coded lyrics and you'll grinning at his cleverness.
Active listeners will get rewarded with gems like the string of bars from the album opener KOVERT:
I ain't seen my mama in a minute
On my heart, just like a pendant
I hate thinkin' 'bout that shit, it's like a domino
Black spots up in my memory
I white out all the pain with green
That's the only color that ain't done me wrong
Damn, how I'm harming these niggas
With these harmonies, nigga
Is you a R&B nigga? Something I gotta know
Vibin' to the bop on the first couple spins then all of a sudden, that hidden coded language becomes untangled. Curious thoughts of "what else did I miss?" will lead an active listener to question every line no matter how insignificant it may seem. Highlights from NOIR include the heavy dub-infused TEQUILA MOCKINGBIRD, the mellow yet active groove of FENTY SEX featuring a breezy, dominant Dreezy, and, in light of recent news, the transition from BAMx2 to the 808 thudding, strip club anthem, KRUSHED ICE featuring Valee serves as a perfect eulogy to King of Diamonds. Above all, PIZANO may be the fan favorite because of Smino's spastic flow as he spits a metaphor-filled 16 bar stanza before he melodically dips for the last five on the dismount.
However, one of the most poignant verses on NOIR is one of his most straightforward.
On HOOPTI, he raps:
I come from the north side, St. Louis, let me tell you 'bout it
Mama always worried about her baby when he leave the house
22s on the Monte Carlo, Remy in the cupholder
With the semi in the stroller, baby seat
And the back this for safety he just holdin' trivia
You never know who might be lurking over shoulders
Man I thank the Lord every time I see my niggas
Not being dramatic, life cinematic
Listen to “NOIR” by Smino
In his interview with The FADER, Smino recalls spending a lot of time in Ferguson County, where he experienced harassment from law enforcement while growing up. Before finalizing his move to Chicago to focus on music in August 2014, he returned to St. Louis for a short stay. He saw the blood-stained ground just hours after Michael Brown was killed. He was there at the first protest that sparked a national movement. He truly witnessed Ferguson firsthand. The bolded line above holds more weight with this additional context.
Like a majority of the contorted lines throughout the entire album, the word NOIR has a double meaning; 1. the color "Black" in French, and; 2. a genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. Across his 18-track project, Smino combines the aforementioned double meaning to create a detailed snapshot experience of Black life in modern America. It's bleak. It's joyful. It's painful. It's beautiful. It's complex, layered and sometimes, certain aspects it won't be completely understood by outsiders. No matter how difficult the circumstances get, being alive gives cause to celebrate in a creative and stylish fashion. Smino's music shares the same characteristics that helped the Midwest affirm a seat on top of the game: bold and ambitious with a subtle confidence devoid of conformities.
From a May 2017 interview with Billboard:
As his trajectory rises to the heights of the Gateway to the West, Smino understands the importance of his influence. By using music to express Black Excellence with this increased platform, he’ll continue to use his voice to promote the values of his heritage and culture, one melodic expression at a time. Nearly two decades earlier, Nelly was the city's trailblazer who shocked the world with his Country Grammar album. Inspired by the same unique and cryptic language laid before him, Smino has the chance to put on for The Lou not just musically, but with a social, civic duty in a way that'll have a lasting impact for years to come.
“A lot of these industry people think I’m stupid. I’m a young black male; you can’t finesse me. We’ve been getting finessed our whole lives. We get that shit! Being a black man in America feels like you’re on damn Jupiter sometimes,” he says with a laugh. “It isn’t familiar. The music industry doesn’t feel familiar. People go through feeling that all the time, you know? Cultural alienation."