By Emma Kahn
Section: ArtsMarch 24, 2017
If you’re already a fan of Chris Smith Jr., better known as Smino, then I’m sure his debut album “Blkswn” has surpassed your highest expectations. If you have never heard of Smino, put down this paper, and open up your preferred streaming service. I may be biased, but I am willing to wager that no matter the genre you prefer, this album is sure to please. A mix of atmospheric chords, smooth R&B vocals and tight rap verses, “Blkswn” might be one of the best possible introductions to the world of young Chicago artists making their way to center stage.
Twenty-five years old and already featured among some of this year’s and last year’s best albums, Smino leaves his fans in awe with each new project. “Blkswn” is the culmination of his unique and breathtaking sound, which he describes as “futuristic funk and soulful rap.” Released this month, the album contains 18 powerful tracks that blend together into one unified sound.
The first track, “Wild Irish Roses,” establishes the vibe of the whole project, opening with light and smooth electronic chords that lead into Smino’s warm and full singing voice. From the start, it is impossible to keep your head steady as he invites you into his mellow and funky aesthetic. And before you know it, layered above those atmospheric vibrations comes a crisp beat and the hints of what is to come as far as Smino’s vocal capabilities. Before that first song ends, you are guaranteed to be hooked.
By the second song, Smino has introduced you to a few more tricks up his sleeve. The easy listening of the first 40 seconds of “Maraca” is interrupted by perhaps one of his best skills—playing with shifts in the beat and tone of a song and introducing funky syncopations that will have you pressing replay again and again. This dynamic and progressive track takes risks that pay off tremendously. After one listen, I could not help singing along to the chorus that begins, “Maraca maraca we make somethin’ shake / Sinatra Sinatra we all want Frank.” Yes, Smino is the kind of artist who can get away with a Sinatra reference, not to mention dozens of cheeky puns and even a song titled “Edgar Allen Poe’d Up (ft. theMIND).”
If you think Smino is a talented artist for his age, wait until you hear “Glass Flows,” which features Ravyn Lenae, a high school senior whose age bears no connection to her musical ability and the maturity behind her profound lyricism. Lenae brings to “Glass Flows” a chilling vocal collaboration that takes the song to great new heights. Her beautiful and hypnotic voice blends perfectly with the haze of electronic symphonies behind her. She was described as having “a watercolor R&B platter with startling depth” by the Austin-American Statesman and has frequently been compared to musical greats Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, among others. I do not have sufficient vocabulary to give Lenae the high praise she merits. And yet, Smino’s impeccable falsetto matches her abilities, the two achieving remarkable mastery over their vocal ranges, throwing high notes out of thin air as though they were nothing.
From “Glass Flows,” we transition into one of Smino’s classic sounds in “Flea Flicka.” He and featured artist Bari rap over a boom-bap style beat and funky electronic waves. The two adopt Smino’s familiar rapid vocal play and alluring alliteration, even going so far as to make frequent cheese puns: “Said I want the cheese / grilled up when I cheese / Yanno I gotta find the parmesan / And long for provolone / ‘Cause when that feta on my fingertips / I feel like I’m the goat.” Smino takes us along from the lyrical depth of “Glass Flows” to a song like “Flea Flicka” and despite the jump in subject matter the album retains a consistency throughout that solidly blends the project together.
I could easily go into depth with every song from this album, but I’ll let some of the tracks speak for themselves. However, I have to speak to my favorite track by far, “Innamission.” I’ve long lost count of how many times I’ve listened to this song, yet each time it comes on, I find myself taken aback by Smino’s vocal abilities. Unfortunately I cannot put onto paper how well he can cut from low notes to high and in doing so, tease out the catchiest lines with more mastery than I ever would’ve thought possible. For this one, you’ll either have to trust me, or go listen.
I recommend that you go listen, in case you have any doubts that he can actually control his voice that well. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find his studio recordings on YouTube, some of which are even acoustic recordings. Watching him live, you’ll see how well he can throw out those verses and test the limits of the human vocal range.
Finally, in the last few tracks of the album, Smino brings in more featured artists and not just any. “Long Run” with Via Rosa drops some gentle beatboxing beneath soulful and expressive vocals. “Ricky Millions” features Drea Smith, Smino’s cousin and renowned artist, from whom he draws career-making advice and inspiration.
“Silk Pillows” featuring Akenya is a light and refreshing track that I initially had little hope for; to be honest, from the title I expected a misogynistic pseudo-love story, perhaps an over-detailed account of lovemaking, or at worst, nauseatingly explicit sexual moans akin to Mac Miller’s “Skin,” ironically included in his album titled “The Divine Feminine.” But what Miller does all wrong, Smino gets right. Instead of explicitly teasing out the idea of femininity, Smino simply features strong women artists.
His final track, “Amphetamine,” benefits tremendously from Noname and Jean Deaux, two phenomenal artists who have harnessed a powerful wave of feminine sounds in their own, genuine terms and have effortlessly woven themselves into Smino’s aesthetic.
From start to finish, this entire album is overflowing with talent. Clearly built off the foundation of his extended release “Blkjuptr” and taking that project above and beyond, “Blkswn” is a must-listen for anyone looking at a future in music and of production. There is not a single moment of this album that doesn’t speak volumes to Smino’s abilities, and I cannot recommend highly enough that you give it a listen.