Smino was destined to make music. At least, that thinking has guided his progression in the art form. When he came by the VICE headquarters in early 2017, we shared stories of our families' musical backgrounds. Both of our grandfathers found themselves playing with legendary musical figures early in their lives; Smino's granddad played bass guitar for blues musician Muddy Waters and mine served as the drummer for two tours with George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic. After realizing that we had a similar upbringing in terms of the music that constantly surrounded us, he paused and said, "Man your ass supposed to be making music." But unlike me, Smino has proven to have the skillset to be a great musician.
The St. Louis-bred artist got his start making rap-heavy music under his birth Chris Smith Jr. One day while he was in his room playfully singing to himself, his sister heard him and told him he needed to express himself more in that way. The encouragement stuck with him but he didn't act on it immediately. He eventually gave into her plea and now makes a beautiful medley of silky crooning, voice tone shifts, and speedy rapping—an unofficial subgenre that artists like Chance the Rapper and GoldLink regularly operate under as well.
Last year's blkjptr EP showed Smino at his most polished. Rap bars effortlessly grew into spirited harmonies about complicated relationships and the dangers of social media. Earlier this week, he announced that his debut album blkswn would be dropping on Tuesday, March 14—an homage to St. Louis' 314 area code. The 18-track project is a seamless evolution of blkjptr, with all production handled by his in-house collaborator Monte Booker. Some standouts include his single "Anita," which features an animated flow and gives spotlight to a love interest. "Netflix & Dusse" is a dreamy take on the quintessential millennial date. He and Ravyn Lenae let their falsettos shine on "Glass Flows." While he was in Brooklyn, Smino and I spoke about his musical growth, getting away from social media, and the process of making a debut album.
NOISEY: Over the past year, there have been a few artists like Kanye and Chance that have brought on the question of whether or not gospel would have a resurgence in hip-hop culture. With having gospel as your own musical foundation, do you see that?
SMINO: I think it would always be there for us because we understand it but it's not about to become a thing. A lot of people try to make funk music and the funk sound, but I don't' think it's a thing. But even in trap music, when Future be singing "March Madness," that shit sound like gospel songs if you slow it down a little bit. We always have that in us. Chance just made it blatant as hell like putting Kirk Franklin on a song. Gospel and soul has never died out in us.
A saw that you mentioned that artists of today are finally realizing the full capabilities of their voices. Why do you think artists are reaching that level of comfort now?
In music, people aren't only looking for street rappers anymore. Now they wanna hear everything. People want to hear a version of rap that relates to them that might not be from the street. Migos are some of my favorite artists because they do everything with their voices. It's only so much you can do when you sing words so you gotta take your voice and use that bitch like it's a trumpet. Mainly, I think artists just want to keep having fun.
A lot of that comes from how you're taught to make music. Because at one time, there was a lot of musicianship in black music because people were still taught instruments in public schools.
Yeah. Right now, the way people use their voices is encouraged because kids like Rae Sremmurd doing all those vocal inflections or they hear D.R.A.M. coming out singing crazy. It's encouraging. Like, I knew I could do this shit but I didn't know if they would like it. Now it's like, let me go ahead and flex and be myself. It's more encourage to do whatever the fuck you think is raw and that's what I like about where everything is headed.
When did you become comfortable enough to let your singing voice be heard?
I had a mixtape called smeezy.com when I went by Chris Smith in St Louis and I kind of sang on there. It's cool, I wasn't out of key or nothing but it's real bland and flat. My harmonies was there but that was it. I used to always try to sing "Incomplete" by Sisqo in the crib. My sister used to be like, "Boy you can sing. Quit playing." But I was too nervous and never really tried at that age. I wish somebody would have pushed me because I probably would be way better off if I took it serious. I probably wouldn't have smoked half of the blunts I've smoked. All in all, I became real comfortable in 2013.
Did that comfort come from getting a response or was it something you had to accept within?
I just wanted to sound good for myself. I never gage the music I make based off a response. I'm never gonna make some shit because people want it. I make what I want to make. It has to sound good to me first. It's just as good of a gift to know when your shit is good and when it's bad.
On "Running" from blkjptr you talk about escapism and dealing with identity issues in this time. Have you had those struggles of trying to work on yourself while constantly being presented with doctored images of others?
I started this year by taking all the social media apps off of my phone because at the end of last year I was on Twitter one day like, this shit is lowkey dumb unless I'm getting money or advertising. It's not dumb but it's dumb. We just keep looking at this shit and refreshing it. You get sucked in. If people got off social media for a week, they'd realize they not fully experiencing life. You'd see a little different.
Since moving to New York, I've been challenging myself to not walk around with earphones so much. It's crazy how I don't experience the natural sounds of being outside anymore.
I had to unplug for a while. I made a few new songs and thought, this is insane. I really got in touch with myself in a way that I haven't in awhile. I don't know if it was because I wasn't on social media or not, but I wasn't. People should log how much they're on there a week. How much you let in unintentionally. You get on Facebook and see all the shit you like on the side of the screen. I just try to know myself more and the more I know myself, the better I can present myself as an artist to the world and to God.
Being a person who critiques their music first, what would be your criticism of blkswn ?
I would say I'm very proud of myself and to call this album mine. I really worked my ass off and I stuck with the family the whole way. It's me and Monte the whole way and my boy Felix stepped in a few times. All people that I'm good friends with. I think my core fans would really be proud too.
At the end of blkswn' s "Netflix & Dusse" you have a conversation with your granddad about staying true to yourself. What is you guys' relationship like?
It's amazing. My granddad is super close to all of his grandkids. He's a funny dude. You know how I'm always cracking jokes? That's where I get my sense of humor. He's also a musician. My g-pops used to play bass guitar with Muddy Waters. He would be in church but he had a bluesy voice and I can remember my uncle saying "Take that twang out of your voice." He sings with that real chesty, grungy voice like what I did on "Anita."
Do you need to have those kind of conversations to keep you encouraged and inspired
Every time I hear that part of the album I just shut the fuck up and listen to him as if he's talking to me right there. I don't think there's anyone I respect as much as my grandfather. Him talking to me like that helps me understand what I need to emphasize on within myself.
Which song did you enjoy making most on the album?
There's a secret song on the album, and it's probably the song I enjoyed making the most. It's called "Krash Kourse" and it's featuring Noname, Jean Deaux, Bari, Phoelix, and Monte. We made it out in LA at Red Bull Studios, and it was just a bunch of friends making a song together.
Do you remember how you felt the first time you listened to it in full?
I was in LA when I wrapped my album. I had this one line that I had to finish, and it was "6 on my bottoms" on "Father Son Holy Smoke." I damn near dropped a thug tear when I finished it. It's been a year of me and Monte working on this album and I really felt the work coming to light.
Photo: Raven Varona
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