blkswn blkswn

Understanding The Divine Feminine In Smino's 'blkswn'

Smino is joined by a host of female collaborators on his debut album that prove that where there is woman, there is light.

Smino is joined by a host of female collaborators on his debut album that prove that where there is woman, there is light.

More often than not, debut albums present an artist’s voice through dynamic sounds, themes and prolific production. Smino’s blkswn does all the above, but manages to score an extra dose of soul and estrogen thanks to his inclusion of serenading and comforting collaborations.

Driven by the St. Louis native’s zany rhymes and vocal inflection, 18 tracks live on blkswn with verses and writing credits from Jean Deaux, Drea Smith, Akenya, Via Rosa, Ravyn Lenae, and Noname. Women are two times as present as guests on the album than men, giving a hand to Smino’s quick verbal harmonies fixated on the turn up, the hang up and the love between men and women.

Smino’s breakout project blkjuptr did not contain any listed features aside from a verse from jay2aintshit, a fellow Zero Fatigue cohort. While blkjuptr was an enjoyable and well put together project, the standout beauty of blkswn is it’s cohesion. In stark contrast to many of his peers in hip-hop, Smino’s sound isn’t overbearingly aggressive and is in many ways complementary. The allure of blkswn’s female features is that they act as an emulsifier: they gel together Smino’s verses and add stabilization to tracks that bake and create a sweet treat for the listener to enjoy.

The first feature of the album belongs to rising star, Ravyn Lenae. Lenae, a Chicago native, released her sophomore EP Midnight Moonlight 11 days prior to blkswn, and brings every bit of the same quality to her guest appearance on the album. On “Glass Flows,” Ravyn Lenae sings with the ethereal quality of a harp, as she and Smino dance in a figurative sword fight of sounds. The effervescent nature of the beat compliments the game of hide-and-go-seek that Smino and Lenae play. The only thing smoother than her voice may be the way that each song on the album transitions into the next.

The album’s title track “blkswn” flawlessly passes the baton to “Long Run” featuring Chicago’s Via Rosa, who delivers crystal clear vocals of her own. “Long Run” is a solemn moment on the album for both Smino and Rosa. While Smino reflects on the St. Louis of his upbringing in lines like “Where I was growing up/they called coroner/around the corner/every morning,” he questions the whereabouts of many— from national news to the presence of a god that could allow people to live and suffer in a world like his.

This is a particularly polarizing four and a half minutes on the album for listeners who stood in the streets, protested across their college campuses, and watched the Ferguson uprisings of 2014 in real time on Twitter. As the song fades, Via Rosa’s voice is haunting, singing, “And you were supposed to be there for me in the long run/What have you done?” In the summer of 2014, the entire world was reminded of the many ways that women stand at the frontlines of the ongoing fight for racial equality in this country. Rosa’s voice cradles Smino’s words in its arms and rocks them, reinforcing his message the entire time. In current context, as we continue to watch the deaths and disappearances of black women in this country be erased, the listener literally should be haunted by the question, what have you done?

“Spitshine” is a groovy transition into “Netflix & Dusse,” a standout track on the album with a carefree and teenage vibe. The content of this song (and most of the album) captures an oxymoronic essence of adult innocence. Smino is no bonafide singer, but is a crooner in his own right as he finds a guided flow with the artist and muse, Jean Deaux. In an industry dominated by hyper-aggressive narratives of pursuit and lust, moments like this suggest the presence of women all around Smino—women who contribute to, and critique his creative process. With the exception of Noname, all of the women featured on the album belong to a Chicago collective known as “Medicine Woman.” The healing the collective brings to blkswn is holistic: it’s stimulating for the mind, it’s breathes life into Smino’s body of work, and lifts the spirit of anyone fortunate enough to hear it.

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“Anita” is a groovy tribute to black women that features Jean Deaux on wax, as well as on the single’s artwork. Smino and Deaux’s relationship seems to permeate beyond the personal and into the artistic realm quite often; she produced the accompanying behind the scenes video for the album, "Making Da Swn," and is also featured on the album’s outro “Amphetamine.”

Family isn’t far behind on blkswn. On “Ricky Millions” Smino employs an acapella interpolation of Ghost Town DJ’s “My Boo” with his cousin, Drea Smith, taking a moment to point out channels of self-reflection. “If I shed skin, sprout wings and took flight, leave them all behind, would I be wrong?” she says. Smino also references Drea on "Making Da Swn," citing the women in his life as daily sources of inspiration as well as inspiration for the album. Drea is also commonly known as the “big sister” of Medicine Woman. She explained what the sisterhood means to her in an interview with Canvas Chicago last year, clarifying that the group is Medicine “Woman,” not “Women.” “Us together, we create one big giant woman,” she said, “kinda like the Power Rangers when they get together and make the big Power Ranger thing.”

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In the tradition of front porches and kitchens and all that is black hair, Drea is present on the album artwork for blkswn, pictured with Smino seated on the floor between her legs. Here, we observe Drea doing Smino’s signature bantu twist out. In conversation about Drea and the album artwork Smino says, “I have [women] who kinda helped my growth, on my album cover, which is dope. My hair is kinda the number one symbol of my growth. I feel my growth as my hair is growing.” This year, Smino said that it was in fact his sister who helped him become comfortable enough to let his voice be heard. “My harmonies was there but that was it,” he said. “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.’”

Deaux, Drea, Via Rosa and Lenae are joined on the album by Akenya, who enters the picture near the album’s end. In “Silk Pillows,” Smino offers a silk pillow to his overnight guest. The cultural relevance of silk pillows as a barrier of protection in the absence of hair bonnets is clear—and not just for his guest, but for Smino as well (“silk pillows keep my head smooth,” he raps). Looking out for a sister instead of demanding a more “polished” look or even putting down another batch of women for weaves and mascara isn’t Smino’s game. While providing a woman’s touch, Akenya’s voice ironically is silk, retaining a vintage quality that mimics that of a record player— a real Billie Holiday-esque feel.

Looking at a short history of male and female R&B/hip-hop collaborations, what Smino does on blkswn isn’t necessarily new compared to acts like Mary J. Blige and Method Man or even Nelly and Kelly Rowland, but it is refined and repackaged for a progressive generation raised in the age of the internet. The women featured on blkswn aren’t necessarily concerned with unrequited love like J. Lo and LL Cool J. “Cat and dog” narratives aren’t hyper-present on blkswn and the conversations between Smino and the featured women seems to intermingle. This stands in opposition to the common call-and-response format of the Ja Rule and Ashanti era. The women on blkswn are complicated and whole: sexy and affectionate, but also politically inclined and intimately in tune with their own well-being. The ladies of blkswn lead their own lives, lives that just so happen to collide with Smino in certain places on the album.

It is important to note that Monte Booker has carefully crafted a signature sound for Smino. It sways but it’s sturdy, it bubbles but it not fluff, it bounces but not too much, and it’s light but the sound is full. In turn, Smino is able to balance content and character; aggressive bars juxtaposed against his crisp sound and playful personality. This is most apparent on the album's final track “Amphetamine,” which ends with a pretty, poetic and powerful verse from none other than Noname of Chicago.

Noname is known to rip any and every feature (See: Chance The Rapper’s “Lost & Finish Line/Drown”) and on “Amphetamine” she does not disappoint.

I know you gifted me the gift of gab and simile
And simpleness, the solitude is loneliness
Been good to me
I told them, 'Give me my happy, I need my holy now'
Thank you Jesus, whoever you are

The end of Noname’s verse also signifies a full circle moment on blkswn. The album begins with a woman’s voice and ends with one. Smino’s insistence to maintain the presence of the muse throughout the album inadvertently demonstrates the secret power of the Midwest: collaboration. There is a lesson in the example of St. Louis and Chicago and all of the Midwest that needs to amplified and exemplified everywhere. Calls for collaborative music making in hip-hop that do not include women are not productive for the culture. As hip-hop continues to evolve, it must hold itself accountable in this regard.

While it should not be considered a bastion of radical sex and gender politics, blkswn gives us a refreshing look at women being uplifted not just as the muse, but as real and valuable artistic contributors. While Smino is still a relatively new rapper in the mainstream, all of the women featured on his debut album are rising stars as well. Smino shares actual space on blkswn with women from his community, not just a retweet of their SoundCloud links on his Twitter account, but space on his album as collaborators. A community that is not inclusive of the talent of women is not a community. blkswn is a gentle and humble reminder of that.

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Review: Jessie Reyez’s Expressive EP Proves There’s Beauty In ‘Being Human In Public’

Jessie Reyez’s recently-released EP Being Human In Public proves that the Toronto musician’s fiery exterior comes with a cool, introspective center. Her 2017 EP Kiddo introduced her to the world as force who was willing to “go there” by singing about major issues like sexual assault and emotionally abusive relationships. This time around, Reyez muses about the softer side of love, displaying her flexibility within the overarching theme.

Much of her latest EP, which dropped Friday (Oct. 19), pertains to the wide range of emotions that come with romantic appreciation. Thanks to her animated performance ability, Reyez encapsulates the complex gamut of the strong emotional state; there’s longing, anger, confusion, confidence and so much more. The 27-year-old songbird’s vocal versatility has gained fans like Kamikaze collaborator Eminem and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, and her attention-grabbing abilities are showcased throughout the multi-dimensional seven-song project.

Reyez’s true vocal gifts shine through when paired with more demure production, evident by the EP’s starting track “Saint Nobody” and the stand-out love anthem “Apple Juice,” produced by Tim Suby and Fred Ball. Her effortless falsetto notes at the duration of the aforementioned song are a melodic combination with the strings that finish out the track.

Perhaps the song that best displays Reyez’s tender core is “Sola (Interlude),” which is sung entirely in Spanish. She coos over an acoustic guitar to a lover about how she’s not necessarily the type of woman they should be with—she would be better off sola (alone). The result? A heart-wrenchingly relatable track that could have served best as the EP's stunning finale.

“I'm not the type of woman that your mother wants to see you with,” the lyrics translate to. “I could never please you...I'm an eagle, flying alone.”

While the content throughout Being Human In Public is rather profound in nature, Reyez makes sure that her signature unapologetic delivery to tackling topics through her songwriting is also highlighted. Thanks to assistance from budding music sensation Normani and Grammy-nominated R&B singer Kehlani on the “Body Count (Remix),” all three singers’ stances on body positivity, sex positivity and all forms of love are highlighted.

Additionally, the straightforward “F**k Being Friends,” which is slightly reminiscent of her quirky Kiddo track “Shutter Island,” deals with the occasionally murky divide between courtship and friendship. “My p***y beat better than my heart do?” she sings, “so why you p***y-footin’ on this part two?”

“In every aspect—in my music, in my life—I’m going to be straight with you, and I tell people too, I’m like that,” Reyez told VIBE in April about the importance of being upfront. “I need you to just tell me direct, because if the roles were reversed, I’m the type to tell you direct.” Love is one of the things that connects all of us as people, and if you can’t be real with that, what can you be real about?

Reyez makes sure that her honesty on wax is as plain and simple as it is in her personal life, and Being Human In Public is an audibly-pleasing extension of her personal beliefs and values.

READ MORE: NEXT: Behind The Extraterrestrial Voice, Jessie Reyez Is Human Like The Rest Of Us

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Lupe Fiasco performs as part of the benefit concert, 'Power To The People' at Coliseo Jose M. Agrelot on March 18, 2018 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Gladys Vega/Getty Images)
Photo by Gladys Vega/Getty Images

Lupe Fiasco Eschews Label Drama And Controversy For Ambitious 'Drogas Wave'

In the early 2000s, JAY-Z called Lupe Fiasco “a breath of fresh air” for rap. Most of the hip-hop world agreed. He delivered a standout verse on Kanye West’s “Touch The Sky,” and a well-regarded Food & Liquor studio debut that led rap fans to saint him as an imaginative, skilled lyricist, adept at weaving storytelling, social commentary, sustained metaphors and technical precision together in an A+ package. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for that figurative breath of fresh air to become a sigh.

While crafting his third album Lasers, he began having creative differences with his former label Atlantic Records. Though the album was eventually released — after his fans literally petitioned for it — the struggle derailed what seemed like his inevitable trajectory to the heights of music that stylistic peers like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole now occupy.

Lupe’s known in part for his sophomore album, The Cool, but it seems like a good stretch of his career was more defined by the frustration. In 2018, though, Lupe’s finally on the right wave — the Drogas Wave. Lupe dropped his first independent album last week, a 24-track conceptual piece dually exploring the drug trade and the transatlantic slave trade that cap-stoned his own trade of Atlantic Records for artistic freedom.

I really only did this album for solid Lupe fans. The PhD’s in Lupeism. It’s in no way for new fans, the casual listener, record sales, the year 2018 or radio. Just the core fans to have a ball with. https://t.co/N76F5YAeDJ

— “DROGAS WAVE” NOW PLAYING (@LupeFiasco) September 26, 2018

He’s always been a master of conceptualization, weaving thematic, if not narrative-driven connections from verse to verse and song-to-song on albums like Food & Liquor, The Cool, and Tetsuo & Youth. Drogas Wave is among his most ambitious work in that regard. The album, which he’s said was made specifically for his “core fans,” ideates what the rhymer called an alternate, fantastic history of the slave trade in which a group of Africans jumped off a slave ship, survived underwater, and spent their new lives sinking subsequent slave ships.

But he still delves into the reality of what happened on songs like “Manilla,” where he sheds light on the currency that European countries used to purchase slaves from West Africa to build so much of the western world. Looking to unite black and brown people across the Americas, Drogas Wave shows him representing for three communities of African descent cultivated in spite of western colonialism: Latinos, West Indians and Black Americans. He rapped fluent Spanish on “Drogas.” He collaborated with reggae royalty Damian Marley on “Kingdom” and rhymed in patois on “Gold vs. The Right Things to Do.” On the thrilling “King Nas,” he dedicates some of the project’s most impeccable rhyming not to God’s Son, but his two young nephews King and Nas who are coming of age in a treacherous environment for all black people in America.

The album was well-crafted and laden with thought-provoking, research-worthy bars examining the scourges that plunder black and brown communities, but it wasn’t flawless. He utilized over a dozen different producers on the project, which resulted in a few compositions that are less compelling than others. There are also choruses by Nikki Jean on “Down” and Troi Irons on “XO” that felt a tad too eager for mass appeal. But even on those tracks, the invigoration and dedication that Lupe rhymes with make them worthwhile listens.

Drogas Wave shows Lupe on the right track. While so many of his fellow rap veterans were ravenous publicity hounds this year, he spent his online time on Instagram Live, dropping what he called “super facts” about the fallacy of white supremacy and the music industry. He also apologized to people he’s insulted like former President Obama, Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, and others. Throughout that March apology session, he ended his statements with variations of, “I should have kept that to myself.” Perhaps he’s now in a space that he should have been his entire career: independent and letting his incredible lyricism speak for him.

Lupe always has wisdom to impart, but like his Chicago comrade Kanye West, he doesn’t always communicate his thoughts in the best way. Over time, he developed a reputation for being an easily agitable presence on Twitter. He’s gotten into arguments with Kid Cudi, Azealia Banks, and several others. In 2013, he derogated Donald Glover as a “Black” instead of a “n***a” for arbitrary reasons.

In 2014, when Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was being accused of cultural appropriation because of her put-on “Atlantastralian” accent and racist lyrics, he defended her by saying she had “a space” in hip-hop. That comment made him one of the first victims of the dreaded social media “cancel,” and he lashed out with his own tweetstorm. He tweeted, “b***h I been here on the rooftop screaming in the ears of these brainwashed a** more money on they feet than in they pocket a** n***as,” and also proclaimed, “I'm here...kick pushing you ignant a** n***az and fast trout mouth a** b***hes all the way to the promised land kicking and screaming h**.”

His retorts were based in truth, but sometimes, brutal honesty is just brutality. The tweets typified why Phonte infamously likened Lupe to The Newsroom as a “technically brilliant show that would be a lot smarter if it stopped trying to show people how smart it was.” Compared to Q-Tip’s thoughtful hip-hop treatise to Iggy, Lupe came across like a know-it-all. But at the base of his anger was a frustration with being misunderstood. He incredulously groused, “I thought I was one of the good guys.”

The son of a Black Panther, Lupe had always delivered anti-establishment messaging in his music that hampered his budding status as the “Superstar” he rhymed about in 2007. In 2011, when most of mainstream hip-hop was deifying Barack Obama, Lupe was telling CBS that “the biggest terrorist is Obama and the United States of America” based on America’s warmongering throughout the Middle East, South America and Africa in particular.

His ire toward the country’s tyranny inspired an awkward, 30-minute rendition of the Obama-critical “Words I Never Said” at an inauguration party in D.C., which the show’s organizers called “a bizarrely repetitive, jarring performance that left the crowd vocally dissatisfied.” Songs like his “American Terrorist” series display his analytical acuity when it comes to diagnosing the roots of systemic oppression and its consequences, but at that point he seemed unable to properly convey his intellect outside the booth.

Lupe has said that he felt he was “immediately blackballed” after his Obama comments. While Lasers had sold 204,000 copies in its first week, 2012’s Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album was Grammy-nominated, but sold just 128,000 records overall as of 2012. His aforementioned Twitter antics were overshadowing his lyrical gifts, his attempts to drop knowledge were being mocked or misunderstood, and worst of all, he couldn’t release music on his own volition.

He told Power 106 in August 2014 that he was “worn down” by the “nonsense” of dealing with Atlantic, and that “we’re just trying to get albums out just to get off the label.” Months earlier he told Torae that, “I don’t have a 360 deal,” so “since they can’t eat off my merchandise or my publishing or my touring they treat me like a third-class citizen.” Still, he resolved, he’d ”fight through it.”

That determination defines him. While discussing “Mission” from 2015’s Tetsuo & Youth, he reflected, “I’ve been inspired by those who are surviving, thriving and fighting.” Just like he’s been fighting to thrive, in spite of label woes, the backlash from subversive beliefs, and self-sabotage that collectively tarnished his mainstream standing. Others artists have let the industry consume them, but Lupe’s still here, rekindling a musical brilliance that his fans knew he was capable of.

On Drogas Wave’s “Jonylah Forever,” a poignant song that ideates 6-month-old Jonylah Watkins, shot dead in 2013, as an adult, he rhymed about how “the coolest thing is when they offered you that high paying slot, you replied ‘they need me in the hood,’ and that's where you reside.” He then talked about her saving a shooting victim, rhyming, “and in that moment, where you gave your help/I bet you didn't know that you saved yourself.”

That powerful summation also applies to him, as an artist who helped others see the light while vying to keep his own spirit alit in a music industry that he mentally “quit” on a decade ago. He told Billboard in 2015 that “I'm happy being that somewhat sophisticated, overly deep weird guy making powerful music — but just two or three degrees away from the center of attention.”

Einstein once mused that, “creativity is intelligence having fun.” It didn’t seem like Lupe was having much fun as a major label artist. But after fulfilling his obligations to Atlantic with Drogas Light, and releasing Drogas Wave independently, he’s revitalized for the next chapter of his career — on his terms.

He recently stated that there would be no interviews for this album cycle because, “I’ve never seen myself as a star and I still don’t.” That makes sense. Stars can’t see themselves, it’s only us spectators who experience the fascination of watching them hover.

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Jack McKain

When It Comes To Both Sound And Sartorial Matters, Masego Has Upgraded To Silk

With his new album 'Lady Lady,' Masego strides into grown and sexy territory.

Masego is a silk man now, or so he tells me. He’s just shaken off the water from his body length PUMA coat, where a committed Reykjavik crowd braved an Icelandic “summer” rainstorm for him. Plastic bags are tied securely over his flashy sneakers, because he isn’t messing them up in the visible mud puddles cratering the city’s Laugardalshöll sporting grounds.

It’s a far cry from when we first met in Brooklyn, New York two years ago, where the then-22-year-old was pigging out at Peter’s Since 1969 before a packed Webster Hall show (R.I.P.), dressed in a multicolored velvet robe, busy blue Hawaiian shirt and basketball shorts that matched neither.

He’s almost embarrassed at the memory. “Why did you allow that?” he asks now, shaking his head. “I wanted the cover of The Fader and that's what I thought it would take. I was trying to out-weird n***as.” Masego, now 25, has not only learned from his sartorial flubs, but has overcome the mild insecurities that inspired them. “I was in this weird battle with people I didn't know and then I started to get more comfortable,” he says. “Get that silk.”

Masego 2.0 is upon us, and his grown and sexy debut album, Lady Lady, is the proof in the pudding. Right from the jump of the 13-track project, released on Sept. 7 (an admittedly somber day for music lovers), the “Silk…” opening instrumental makes it crystal-clear that his intention is to soothe and to woo.

His charm and playful sensuality come to the forefront on smooth tracks like “I Had A Vision,” the SiR-assisted “Old Age” (which also features Instagram comedian Renny) and the freestyled “Queen Tings” featuring SiR’s cousin, Tiffany Gouche. However, hip-hop and trap fans aren’t left out of the equation. Cuts like “Shawty Fishin (Blame The Net)," and “Lavish Lullaby” pair slick bars with enough knock and bass to soundtrack road trips as well as coax wallflowers onto the dance floor with a partner.

In the time between the release of his 2016 freebie project, Loose Thoughts, and now, Masego has seen some world. Frequent exposure to different pin drops across the globe and the creatives who live there bolstered his sound in exciting ways, giving way to some of Lady Lady’s standout selections. It’s an understatement to say that the LP’s instrumentation and production handiwork magnify his spotlight.

Take a look at the album’s supernova of a single “Tadow,” brought into full fruition during a jam session with French multi-hyphenate musician, FKJ. “I feel like the overseas travel is the inspiration. It kind of builds up and then when I get a chance to sit down, it just comes out,” he says. “I knew I was going to South Africa and then I sat down and we just free-styled, planted some beats, making stuff and then ‘Queen Tings’ was just freestyled. With ‘Tadow,’ on the plane ride to Paris I was watching a Fresh Prince marathon. You know the one where he slept with Janice? That was mad funny to me so that was the last thing in my spirit.”

Then on the album’s slow-burning title track, full-bodied lyrics are an afterthought. Instead, sensual scats and truncated mutters carried along the notes of his sax dim the lights, while velvety vocals crook the finger at his lady-to-be. "If you classy but you're reckless/Then you gon' get choose a necklace, lady lady," he coos, no stranger to slick talk.

“Everything kind of goes back to my uncles,” he says, reflecting on how the idea for “Lady Lady” came about during a family visit. “After going to Jamaica, I understand why they're so cool naturally. My Southern uncles, they got this Southern respect and there's a more pimp-ish side to my father's side and so that kind of comes together with ‘Lady Lady.’ It’s like ‘Lady Lady’ could mean… it’s like almost saying, ‘Hey love.’ It could be a potential love on that level or 'this my girlfriend,' you know what I'm saying?”

Within his short career, Maségo has remained unmarried to just one scope of music. The singer-songwriter and saxophone savant floats between jazz, hip-hop, and R&B (and the occasional trap) from song to song as freely as he pleases, but he's in his bag the most when they meld together. In his eyes, Lady Lady is the perfect cocktail of that, showcasing his creative maturation and slight pivot from the Pink Polo EP-era Masego fans are used to. “After my glow up stage is done, I want to just go off wherever Adele is chilling right now,” Masego jokes. “I want to like just be in the thick of things. I think [Lady Lady] is going to be lovely in the sense of it’s going to give you that next threshold."

READ MORE: Quincy Jones Gives Masego Advice On How To Become A Living Legend

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