An original voice in the rap game, Smino’s 2017 debut album blkswan is smoother than smooth. It’s butter melting into fresh-off-the- griddle pancakes. It’s freshly unfurled silk curtains dropping and pooling at your feet. It’s crystal clear waves rushing softly on a beach. It’s what Rob Thomas and Santana were talking about in that Grammy-winning 1999 hit single. It’s incredible, really, that a brand new artist in the rap scene can make such a soulful, smooth album on the first go-around— not to mention the fact that the album itself is just over an hour long, complete with 18 jazzy tracks. From the hazy introductory track, “Wild Irish Roses”, which expertly combines Smino’s buttery vocals with dreamy r&b and pulsating funk into a tale of a boy in search of some Backwoods who finds love on the way to look for them, to the ASMR-inducing “Glass Flows”, featuring Ravyn Lenae (whose performance on this track is stellar, while not making too big of a deal of itself), blkswan is easily the type of album you could hear being bumped by both a hot New York City club and a midcity Urban Outfitters store.
Speaking of Lenae’s fantastic feature, to speak well of Smino’s success with blkswn is to acknowledge that many, many minds beyond Christopher Smith, Jr.’s own went into this. His self-proclaimed contemporaries, like theMIND and Noname, find their way onto this album in beautiful ways; the former, collaborating on the polyphonic “Edgar Allan Poe’d Up”, the latter lending her jazzy voice to the final track “Amphetamine”, shouting out her own album, Telefone, referencing the iconic Lauryn Hill, and thanking God for a gift all listeners will believe she’s speaking on behalf of herself and Smino for— “the gift of gab and simile and simpleness”, the thing that makes them brilliant, the thing that makes their art so good.
Smino describes his own style as “future funk rap”, yet even that fairly niche label gives him enough room to play comfortably around with his own flow— a flow he knows is fantastic. Nearly all of the tracks feature minimalist backbeats that take a backseat to Smino’s beautiful vocals. Take “Maraca”, the second track of the album. You can clearly notice Caribbean-influenced beats throughout the song, but they never overpower the raps themselves. Does his flow seem a bit awkward at times. occasionally not fitting within the constraints of what you thought could flow with the beat? Possibly. The fact that the beat is not what primarily defines Smino’s music, however, saves any of those moments from cramping his style and leaving a listener unsure of whether or not they liked the song. Of course you liked it. It’s feel-good, fluid r&b. It’s complex bars (take a listen to “Father Son Holy Smoke”; “learning to teach my children about agriculture/ FDA-approving murder burgers...” gave me chills the second time around) and concise talent. It’s Smino. Simple as that.