Smino belongs in the same sentence as Saba, Noname and Valee when it comes to hip-hop’s most eclectic new artists. His first album, blkswn, was an effortless blend of genres, revealing an artist with a diverse palette, who was just as comfortable singing as rapping. On his follow-up, NOIR, the St. Louis artist builds on this early promise with one of the most consistently original rap albums of the year.
Smino’s music never quite does what you expect it to do. Album opener “KOVERT” unexpectedly moves into distorted bass as Smino creatively raps about rolling up his insecurities into a joint and “putting a fire to the foolery.” It’s followed by the topsy-turvy synths of “L.M.F.,” an unpredictable song that descends into tribal drums. By the time the Brazilian samba vibes of “TEQUILA MOCKINGBIRD” kick in, it’s clear no song on NOIR sounds the same, with Smino more than happy to keep on switching up styles.
At times this can be intoxicating; the stoner rap vibes of “MERLOT,” where Smino collides racial identity with a bottle of red, are inspired. “MF GROOVE” mixes Parliament-esque funk with a swirly vocal style reminiscent of Bilal amid a beat that sounds like a UFO gliding through the sky. Towards the end of the track, the vocals turn gospel and more reflective, showing Smino is capable of genius melodic changes.
However, these constant switches in tone don’t always work. “BAM 2x” has a hyper-animated flow that is slightly irritating to listen to, while “Z4L” is unashamedly misogynist (lyrics include: “I’m too fucking grown to teach you to ride a dick”) and the complete opposite of the more introspective tracks that came before it. Meanwhile, the almost acoustic “VERIZON” has a tepid vocal style that comes across like a bad Anderson .Paak impression.
It’s obvious Smino has an abundance of talent, but it almost feels like he’s trying too hard to show us, with these many switches in tone jarring to listen to and difficult to keep up with. NOIR lacks a consistent thread holding it together, which leaves it feeling a little schizophrenic. It’s a lot likes switching through TV channels or radio stations, moving from different vibe to different vibe and ultimately feeling a little dizzy. While it’s amazing to see an artist with so much range and ability, there’s a feeling that Smino is still trying too hard to prove himself and this sometimes takes you out of the album. It hints at an immature artist who hasn’t yet found his signature sound. That said, there are few albums from 2018 which splice genres so effectively. Smino has a commitment to destroying the idea of a comfort zone and this should be applauded, especially in an era where certain artists put out the same album over and over again.
Smino should also be praised for creating sex raps that feel grown up and atmospheric. “FENTY SEX” has a softer sound, showing Smino is in touch with his feminine side and possesses the same Lothario wit of bigger artists such as Drake and A$AP Rocky. It’s a perfect indicator of his versatility, with an absolute commitment to making the bed rock via a cheeky guest verse from Dreezy who raps about having an “ass like a cinnamon roll.” The thumping bass of “KRUSHED ICE” sounds overtly sexual, phallic even, as Smino says “she go crazy for the bass line” and jokes about accidentally bumping heads during intercourse. It’s an instant banger, which sounds like vintage Lil Wayne. The brilliant Valee feature also reminds us why everyone from 6ix9ine to Nicki Minaj has ripped off his flow recently.
“SPINZ” is probably my favourite track here, the laid back mood perfectly mirroring that beautiful feeling of being three tokes into the perfect joint. It also shows off Smino’s tongue-twisting ability as a lyricist, with the playful alliteration of the chorus (“It was gruesome / what we grew from / but we grew some in the end”) and sharp turn of phrase (“Niggas solid ‘til you liquidated”) in the verses both easy to admire. On the whole, there remains a feeling that Smino needs a little bit more polish in order to bind his obvious originality into a neater package. Even if NOIR feels a little sporadic, it’s filled with potent music — there’s just a sense that this is more a great collection of songs than a great album.