Midwestern rapper Christopher Smith Jr., aka Smino, experienced a breakthrough last year with the release of his debut album, Blkswn. While it wasn’t his first go-round, Blkswn was the first that many people, including myself, were hearing from the St. Louis recording artist, who mesmerized listeners with his unique blend of hip-hop, neo-soul, and Southern R&B, bringing together super syrupy, infectious melodies with sharp flows and punchlines. Blkswn displayed a genuinely remarkable talent; nobody, at least that I’m aware of, sounded quite like Smino. It was a breath of fresh air in a genre that, as it approaches its carrying capacity, fishes for truly distinct voices to break up some of the banality that comes with imminent oversaturation.
Yet one question I pondered leading up to the release of his sophomore album, Noir, was what direction Smino would go from there: would he and Zero Fatigue crewmate Monte Booker (who produced nearly all of this album and Blkswn, as well as the preceding 2016 EP blkjuptr) continue to embrace the warm, groovy tunes characteristic of the current Chicago renaissance, or would we witness a move toward a different sound, such as the darker, bassier, trappier sonics of his song “Coupe Se’ Yern,” which he dropped back in July.
Noir ventures once again into Smino’s stream of consciousness, consisting of lust, flamboyance, and alcohol references, in another exceptional display by the St. Louis emcee. What Noir perhaps lacks in the relative cohesion that Blkswn had, it makes up in it’s “experimental” nature: the eccentric song titles, catchy, soulful melodies, and quippy quotables are all still there, but Noir also serves as a playground for Smino and Monte Booker to play around with a myriad of different ideas, as well as hone Smino’s own production style (he is credited with production on three songs).
This “experimentation” allows him to both slightly tamper with sounds he’s similarly set forth in the past, like on “L.M.F.”, “Fenty Sex,” and “Merlot,” as well as feature unique musical explorations. From the rattling, clinking production and Smino’s screechy cadence on the appropriately named “Klink,” to the uptempo reggae flip on “Tequila Mockingbird,” to the jazz-bounce fusion on “Hoopti,” to the prominent bassline of “MF Groove” and trunk-knocking sub-bass of the Valee-assisted “Krushed Ice”… Noir remains a fun, colorful array of audio that provides rarely a single dull moment.
If Blkswn was the album that forced the music world to start paying attention to the insanely talented St. Louis product, Noir solidifies Smino as one of the most exciting rap voices to emerge from the Midwest in the past few years, standing toe-to-toe with artists like Noname, Saba, and Mick Jenkins, who collectively have all left footprints as some of contemporary hip-hop’s most innovative acts.