D Smoke, born Daniel Farris, might have won Netflix's rap competition Rhythm + Flow, but nothing about his journey suggests he is an overnight celebrity. Despite comparisons to Kendrick Lamar, who is labelmates with Smoke's brother SiR on TDE, the rapper is less interested in the nepotism attached to his brother's success. After winning a $250,000 cash prize, Smoke released Inglewood High, a seven-track EP paying homage to the high school where he attended and eventually taught. Last week, Smoke released Black Habits, a debut album that is as autobiographical as it is intentional.
The family on the cover of Black Habits are all smiles, but their story is more than meets the eye. This portrait is only a snapshot of Smoke's life, capturing the joy of his family as photographs often do. This picture, however, isn't the cookie-cutter image of a family in front of their white picket fence. Ronald, Smoke's father, was sentenced to 17 years at Mule Creek State Prison before receiving an appeal after serving six-and-a-half years in 1993. His mother, Jackie, was a famed background singer and music instructor, but eventually, his parents' struggle with drug addiction and incarceration colored his childhood in Inglewood. Through it all, D Smoke is nothing without his family. Everyone on the album cover is featured throughout the project.
"To hear those voices makes it a lot more personal that these people are real and still with us," he tells me. In a Netflix mini-doc released a few days before the album, Smoke says he's been working on his debut for the last two years. But the rapper's work on Black Habits dates much further back than his first studio session. He's been unknowingly writing this album his whole life.
On "Top of the Morning," the rapper pens what seems to be a thesis for Black Habits. "Don't get it fucked up / It's love in here," he says. Through its moments of survival, lust, and introspection, D Smoke is determined to show what people do for those they love. The rapper chatted with VICE about Black Habits' power of healing generational wounds.
VICE: You said winning the show didn't change the plans you had for yourself as an artist. How did you decide how you wanted to present yourself on Black Habits?
D Smoke: We were always planning for Black Habits. Inglewood High was the appetizer to the full course meal. With Inglewood High, we knew we wanted to take advantage of winning Rhythm + Flow. There were a lot of eyes on us and people would want to have something to listen to. Black Habits is more carefully curated than Inglewood High was. It has more live musicianship and the interludes are more thoroughly put together. We wanted to combat the notion that this was a short-lived television moment.
In an era of shorter songs, Black Habits offers the opposite. It feels older in a sense of how people used to make albums.
The longer songs come from a tradition of artists who transformed their song structure. With artists like Stevie Wonder, you could get seven- or eight-minute songs that you could follow all the way through. "Bullies" goes on a journey—the beat itself isn't a loop. The guitar solo comes in and there's more musicianship building.
We're in such a fast-food factory age where you're just pumping out music because a song doesn't grow to any other point, so they're short. When you have a certain degree of musicianship in the room, it reads more like a story than a brief musical moment.
Recounting your experiences in Inglewood adds so much to Black culture's collective narrative. What does Black Habits mean to you as a title?
Black Habits is a celebration of Blackness—the good and the bad. For me, it's always been the duality of Pops in jail, Mom and Pops having this spell with drug addiction, then sobriety. Pops coming home, being an excellent father and then Mom being a musical instructor. It's that duality of the good and the bad that comes with this very Black experience.
What do you remember about the day you took the photo on the album's cover?
Pops was locked up. That day was a conjugal visit. There were different degrees of separation from Pops. There were collect calls at home. Then, there were visits where you can only touch between the two-inch glass. Then, conjugal visits are the most personal. We're all in jail with you. It's just a little apartment within the jail that we can all be locked up together as a family.
I remember that day vividly. The visit was already ending so it was really bittersweet. We posed for the camera and we're happy we got to see him but we're leaving. While Pops was locked up, I was a knucklehead. I was always fighting. I knew we had Mom's permission to defend ourselves and I would take whatever reason I had to do so. When I visited my Pops, he knew I was fighting, he would hear the stories. I remember him being like, "Oh yeah? You could fight? Punch me in the chest." I was six years old but I thought I was the man. I punched with everything I had and he just started busting out laughing. He was jail swole at the time and that's when I was like, "Damn, he's super strong."
He had this phrase, "Fire, flood, or blood." That means don't knock on this door unless it's a fire, a flood, or somebody's bleeding. After that, we hopped back on the road and we drove back to LA from Mule Creek. My mom had this beat-up car and there was a hole in the floor where you could look down and see the ground moving under you. Those are just little things I remember from that visit.
On the opener, a little boy says "I just pray that you bring our dad from jail soon." Why did you want to start the album this way?
I just went back to my first memory, which was gathering and praying. As the songs came together, we wove them into that main storyline. With the song "Season's Pass," we asked, how does that relate to the larger story of Pops being away? Moms and Pops had these conversations during those conjugal visits. That "I miss you" energy connected the dots to that story.
Even in "Like My Daddy," I say, "Super fly, I'm super high / Stare me down there's plenty you in I." Even though I'm using this storyline of Pops and Mom, when you get into the songs it's me putting in my perspective. I'm talking my own shit within my parents' story as the overarching theme.
On "No Commas" you rap about the importance of buying back the block. But there's also Nipsey Hussle's legacy, where he lost his life on the same block he invested in by a member of his community. How do we continue to invest without being discouraged?
I was heartbroken [by Nipsey's death]. I've walked in Nipsey's store before it was the modern version. I've bought his mixtapes and t-shirts. I worked across the street from that store because I taught at View Park High School for an entire year.
The consciousness of Black people is raising to be more aware of the need to purchase, own, and invest. Regardless of the consequences, it's what has to be done. The people who accept that sense of responsibility aren't discouraged by that. I'm not discouraged by it. It only makes me feel a greater sense of responsibility to take up that mantle he took on.
Issa Rae just helped open a coffee shop in Inglewood, the Hilltop [Coffee and Kitchen]. It's not just hers, but a group of other Black investors. That's a huge sign of something positive happening because the investment doesn't fall on any one person's shoulders. It's so much pressure on these people to deliver where it really should be a collective effort because that's how other communities do it.
Your dad tells his side of the story on "Like My Daddy." How important was it for you to get him on the track?
As a culture, the Black family structure is so broken that there's somebody who has no idea what it looks like to successfully play the role that they have to play. In a lot of ways, my Pops was winging it. His style of fatherhood—the willingness to be a big kid with us—was almost like a brilliant accident.
"Like My Daddy" can be taken a million ways. For so many people who don't have fathers altogether it's like, Is that something I need to process? For those who do and have troublesome relationships, it can be a challenge to address that and mend things. For those who have a good relationship with their father, take a moment to appreciate that. I've been through all of those stages: not having him, having him and being at odds, and being able to appreciate him.
The song about Pops is something that doesn't happen in hip-hop culture. We got "Dear Mama," we got "Hey Mama," but I can't think of a song completely about fathers. It was super personal but as a legacy piece, I gave my family their roses while they could still smell them.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.