Emerging in Chicago but originating in St. Louis, Smino takes liberty with his studio debut by carefully crafting a sound that critics may deem similar to a Bryson Tiller or even a Pharrell Williams at times. Hip-hop in the 2010s straddles a fine line between “traditional rap,” hard hitting bars with bass-drenched beats, and R&B. Vocally, Smino might fall into such classification; his default “rapping voice” is crackly, raspy, and oddly pleasant, but he doesn’t hesitate to brandish more traditional singing vocals, in both higher and lower registers. What immediately distinguishes the St. Louis native though, is his production choice, which prevents him from falling prey to the “trap&soul” stylings of late.
Composed almost entirely by Chicago producer Monte Booker, Blkswn is one of the most intentionally produced albums thus far into 2017. As much as Smino’s singing vocals and topic choice could mirror a Bryson Tiller, his roots in Chicago could also create comparisons between the raspy charms of circa-2013 Chance the Rapper. Monte Booker however subverts such comparisons by tailoring his production to Smino’s idiosyncrasies. Synthetic melodies contrast lite percussive clacks, taps and snaps encompassed by very warm bass that rarely drifts into the unruly zone of more recent trap stylings.
The intro cut, “Wild Irish Roses” immediately typifies Smino’s preferences, with the first verse coming in slightly muffled beneath a warbling beat only to break away to a crisp verse that contrasts Smino’s naturally crackly vocals against the continually soothing production.
This contrast continues for much of the album, which to some extent could be listed as a joint project with Booker. Further complementing Booker’s production choices are a number of track transitions that keep the album sounding vivacious and evolving. Over the last 30 seconds or so of “Maraca” Booker introduces some slowed snaps that eventually jump to a faster tempo and are featured on the subsequent track “Glass Flows.”
Transitions in production are then complemented by Smino’s ability to seamlessly flow between each incarnation of his voice, notable on “Glass Flows” and even more so on “Edgar Allen Poe’d Up.” The former track, featuring Ravyn Lenae, is a duet centered around a failing relationship as each side is coming to terms with their changing reality. In this case, Smino sticks to his higher octave as he and Lenae tip-toe around the cracked glass of the relationship. The latter, featuring fellow Chicago colleague theMIND, has Smino cycle between all three voices between the chorus and first verse without feeling broken or out of place. Similarly, theMIND comes through with one of his most diverse features, staying away from his usually cloudy and abstract vocals for a comparatively gruff verse laced with drunken hiccups throughout.
In addition to Lenae and theMIND, Smino enlists the help of fellow Zero Fatigue members Jay2 and Bari, as well as Via Rosa, Akenya, Noname and his older cousin Drea Smith. When Smino doubles up (or in the case of hidden track “Khrash Kourse” quadruples up) with a guest the tracks align more closely to duets than most features in the modern hip-hop and r&b scene. Instead of trading verses and lines, Smino and his features toss in background vocals that further supplement the transformative qualities of Booker’s production and Smino’s vocal range.
Over the 63 minute runtime listeners would be hard pressed to find a track that doesn’t transform in some way despite most cuts coming in around 3 and a half minutes. On “Father Son Holy Smoke,” the up-tempo first verse eventually gives way to a strolling bassline which then slows to a crawl before the track’s layers dissolve. Even on “B Role,” the most sonically disparate track of the bunch, the guitar that begins “B Role” eventually gives way to a fluctuating bass which Smino again contrasts with his wispy, higher pitched vocals.
Blkswn is something of a compositional masterpiece. Smino’s vocal control and Booker’s control of the boards prevent the replays of these 18 tracks from sounding stale. While Smino isn’t a monster lyricist, rather bars like “I’m on their ass like an enema,” (pretty sure enemas go in) or “said I want the cheese, grilled up when I cheese,” might have you thinking quite the opposite, these are actually few and far between. Ultimately Blkswn comes together tightly, with Smino solidifying a sound all his own.