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.
“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.”
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.