When I first sat down and listened to Smino’s debut album, blkswn, a collaborative effort full of interesting musical ideas that explore Smino’s unique vision of the world, I had to double check to make sure that it was indeed a debut album. The confidence and clarity in which Smino crafts and presents his musical identity, one grounded in his identity as a black man in the USA (and more specifically, St. Louis, MO), is something I would expect from an artist on their second or third full length album. The future funk rap effort is smooth and lowkey confident, though perhaps a bit slow and at times repetitive. But I can forgive this as Smino’s eclectic and cohesive combination of lo-fi funk, hip hop, and neosoul is a major feat, one that he successfully pulls off. I’m excited to hear more from Smino and I hope he (and the whole crew, featured artists and producer, Monte Booker, included) gets more recognition for this great debut effort.
The album never seems to falter in what it wants to express and the entire thing is like a breath of fresh air, authentic despite the heaviness of the beats and the depth of the sounds and layers. Thematically, blkswn is like a no-stops definition of Smino’s take on his life and the sound seems quite intimate, like musical diary entries of his day to day life. The lyrics too are down to earth, often simultaneously sarcastic and lighthearted, effortlessly crafting a version of the world from Smino’s perspective. Simple things like love, sex, friendship, community, and pride, nothing new by any means, are approached in refreshing ways both lyrically and musically, especially in terms of Smino’s constantly changing flow, moving effortlessly from sharp bars to bubbly phrasing to soulful crooning–all in one song. This album doesn’t seem intent on impressing anyone but instead on embracing its own authenticity and accurately portraying the lives of everyday (black) St. Louis citizens, as if Smino and his friends sat down and decided to make some music for their friends and I was lucky enough to be around to listen.
The features on this album are great as well. Each voice blends flawlessly with both the instrumentation and the other singers despite the unique timbre they each possess. No feature seems out of place and each singer communicates well with each other and Smino, neither overbearing nor submissive in the overall arrangement of the music. I especially liked the mixing of voices in the final track, “Amphetamine.” None of the featured artists are credited for this song (their voices and style are unique enough that you can honestly figure out who is singing regardless…) but that might be the point. The overall vision of the album trumps the individuality of each performer in pursuit of a enjoyable, complex, and intimate representation of their worlds. The emotionality and earnestness of the artists’ point of view, as an entire body of work, is thus consistent and easily understood the entire run time of blkswn.
Musically this album is solidly consistent perhaps to its own detriment at times in terms of tempo and instrumentation. blkswn is definitely a chilled downtempo sort of album and sometimes seems to drag a bit. Perhaps 18 songs is too many but I can’t recommend any songs to pull since none seem out of place (though sometimes it is difficult to remember one song from another as some songs have very similar instrumentations). The music is rather minimalist in terms of arrangement but this is by no means a negative. The artists on the album fill in the empty spaces with interesting rhythmic and vocal choices. For example, “Netflix & Dusse” is only a bass line, single marimba, claps, and a drum set. Very simple and probably boring by itself. But then the stacked vocals come in and suddenly the arrangement is spot on. Each song also tells an interesting musical story and eschews repetition for constant evolving soundscapes, which keeps the listener on their toes, the song writing good enough to make simplistic arrangements enjoyable. It’s exciting song writing despite the whole downtempo feel.
Sidenote: all I can think is what these songs would sound like live…probably amazing. A small basement club with a keyboard, drumset, shaker, bass, and the whole gang along to sing? It seems this album, with it’s inclusive and intimate feel, would be perfect for live performance.
My favorites from this album are “Wild Irish Roses,” “Glass Flow,” “Spitshine,” “Edgar Allan Poe’d Up,” “blkswn,” and “Amphetamine” because I think these songs are the strongest representation of what Smino has to offer musically, lyrically, and thematically.