There’s no feeling quite like knowing you belong. Nothing like having the privilege of understanding your place in society and knowing that, unwaveringly and undoubtedly, it is yours. This particular sensation is one that black and brown people in America—whether born on U.S. soil with cultural ties elsewhere, or to deep American lineage or otherwise—seem to know the least about. Historically, hued people in the U.S. have had to fight for the respect and recognition of their personhood, and up until now have only made footsteps of progress in their perpetual quest for societal, economical and systemic equality.
So when spaces are carved out by us and for our own solace and comfort—in the arts, in education, in entertainment, in worship—we occupy them with a joy and fullness that, at times, cannot be outwardly conveyed beyond those confines. We wax poetic about triumphant, turbulent and trifling roads to love and lust, relish in the quirks of our upbringing, and vent about the things that cause us pain and hold us back. Smino, the nimble St. Louis rapper with an equally enviable singing voice, makes the right kind of music for those experiences right in the pocket of what we as a colorful and cultured people cannot always express without being misunderstood.
Part of Smino’s artistry, a hip-hop-soul-funk-jazz hybrid of sorts, orbits around understanding the space he occupies in the world. On his blkswn debut album, that self-awareness quickly finds its way to the forefront. “Since Ferguson, days on Castro/I knew what the black on my back hold/Snakes big, grass low/Ashy lil' black boy,” he raps on “Ricky Millions.” But even more importantly, his music offers a transfer of positive energy within his extended communities: in the booth with his Zero Fatigue crew, to his fans on the other side of the ear bud and with his blood and chosen families in the Lou and in Chicago, his second home.
“When I f**ked my foot up, I was depressed from the moment I did it, to the moment I stepped on stage in Toronto, then all the joy that I lost came right on back,” he says, referencing his discreetly bandaged right ankle. A mosh pit experience gone wrong in Pontiac, Michigan, just the second date on his Swanita Tour, bound him to a pair of crutches he’s since tricked out with a pair of baby Air Force Ones. But injury or not, the shows must go on. “By the moment you get to ‘Anita,’ it's like, ‘what can you be mad at right now?’"
“Anita,” the LP’s second single, is a prime example of his craft’s medicinal effects. Creating music to pay the bills is one thing; becoming a vessel for joy is another. Smino—né Christopher Smith Jr.—is the product of a family well entangled in the music and soul of the church, where he played drums for the band. His savory vocals—gritty, raw and densely seasoned like Cajun fries—come from his mother, while his instrumental musicality derives from his father and grandfather, who play the keys and bass guitar, respectively. And according to him, there’s one thing being a church boy has taught him for sure: how to find his little bit of sanctuary on that stage. Standing before crowds has proven to be his happy place and a cure-all for whatever issues may happen beyond them.
During sound check on a still-sunny Tuesday evening, the muffled bass and vibrant keys of “Anita” can be heard beyond the walls of NYC’s Bowery Ballroom. Smino is holed up here two and a half-hours ‘til show time, holding court on a crowded stage with his band, making last minute tweaks on the visuals to accompany his set-list.
“Can we try some light sh*t? I wanna see how the blackout looks,” he asks the sound technician while rehearsing “Amphetamine,” a song that should backdrop a date at the city’s Blue Note jazz club. It will be the last song of the evening, and he wants to sing it with the house lights dimmed and disco lights overhead. All other lighting will come from the glow of his fans’ cell phones. After one last set of instructions for his band to not build the song back up at the end, he wraps rehearsal, grabs his crutches and slowly makes his way down the stage stairs towards the smattering of early patrons.
Brightened house lights reveal Smino to be a handsome shorty with smooth, even brown skin and perfectly symmetrical and leveled facial hair. He’s sporting a lumpy black du-rag for today, but ever since he announced the coming of blkswn, Smino’s signature crown has been his identifier. Usually, three cleanly parted bantu knots grace the front of his head, with the fourth undone like the rest that fill out his well-moisturized ‘fro (upkeep courtesy of his girlfriend and fellow musician, Jean Deaux, who can be heard on “Amphetamine”). Seldom is he caught without a flashy pair of Forces on his feet, a not-so-subtle nod to Nelly’s 2002 single, and trendy garments that freely experiment with color blocking, patterns, texture and fit.
Six fans with meet-and-greet access wait for him to come their way for hugs, daps, selfies and plenty of toothy smiles. Don't be fooled by the stoic resting face. Smino is a smiler. When he’s cheesing, it’s wide, rich and all encompassing; the kind that when it emerges, it prompts you to smile and be happy for other no reason than because you saw it. Just ask the crowds that clamor to see him live, as they’re privy to the same grins that friends old and new witness behind closed doors.
Later, pushing to the front of a thick crowd at a Zero Fatigue show should’ve been harder than it actually was. When the Ballroom finally fills to its 575 person capacity, gentle excuse me’s are enough for the amped fans, shrieking Zero Fatigue call-and-responses to each other, to part ways. No attitudes. No sucked teeth. No shoving. There’s something about the crowd that he attracts. There’s a joy and positivity in them that, for the most part, he’s responsible for.
To put it lightly, his show feels like one big party. When he emerges on stage after opening sets from Jay2AintSh*t, Bari and Jean Deaux and gets to the mic stand, he throws his crutches to the side. He props his injured leg up on the center speaker for balance to jump with his left, refusing to let a little fracture kill his vibe. Smino looks out at the crowd, grinning ear-to-ear as fans recite all the words to “Anita,” “Spitshine” and “Netflix & D’Usse” from the first chords.
When he’s rapping, he’s slashing the air with his arms, providing no shortage of tongues stuck out and animated body movements. “All you n***as need to go grab a girl, don't even play yourself,” he commands during “Wild Irish Roses,” body rolling with his eyes closed and hands up like an uncle at a cookout after his third cup. When he sings, it's all in the face. He smiles through his high notes (a trick learned from singer-songwriter, Ravyn Lenae) and that one vein on the left side of his neck pops out when he nails them.
There’s even a whole breakout section dedicated to Nelly, a St. Louis legend and someone he’s strangely doubtful he'll ever cross paths with—if they do link in their hometown, he imagines it’ll “feel like the Cardinals won the World Series”—and T-Pain’s “Chopped & Screwed” before winding down the show. Even though the tireless crowd gave him a run for his money all night, it’s evident that nobody’s having more fun in this moment than Smino.
For the past two hours that Smino’s allowed me to crash his downtime day of pizza, beer, weed and Black Ink Crew, he has not left the spot on the brown corner sectional couch I found him in. Today he’s in homebody mode, loafing around his temporary New York digs in yesterday’s ensemble, reflecting on the day’s canceled plans with satisfaction. It’s a crowded set-up in here, but it works.
For approximately 15 people—Smino, two backup singers, a DJ-slash-photographer, mix engineer, drummer, bassist, guitarist, pianist, manager Chris Classick, rappers Bari and Jay2AintSh*t, Jean Deaux and Monte Booker, the producer/mastermind behind Zero Fatigue—an airy fourth floor duplex on Lexington Ave and E 29th Street has been their ritzy Kips Bay crash pad. A handful of this traveling crew is huddled around the Airbnb’s kitchen counter, visibly enamored by the loft’s smart house capabilities. There’s a cooking vent that rises up from the sleek countertop at the push of a button. On-demand heated floors enhance the duplex's lower half. The fridge blends seamlessly with the grayscale cabinet wall. A floor to ceiling panel of windows leads out to the lush green view of backyard trees and, ultimately, the killer rooftop that Smino's not even going to get to see on this trip.
From the comfy couch, every so often he'll lean forward to push his crutches out the way, reach for a bag to ash his J in, or pick up a glass of water that a little weed nugget fell into but he's still drinking from anyway (because, hydration). But other than that, his dent in the cushion remains unchanged. His sock-covered right foot is stretched out and propped up on two pillows, while his left leg is planted on the ground, protected by his trusty sneaker of choice. The night before, he tired himself out defying doctors’ orders and bouncing around the Bowery Ballroom stage, one of many sold out venues along their 22-city North American trek, on one leg.
“Bro, I was buzzing after the show for so long last night,” he says, with a subtle reminiscing grin sneaking in. He doesn’t take part of any debauchery before hitting the stage since he can’t imagine being high and high. “I got off stage, went upstairs, went onto the bus by myself, sitting on the bus just buzzing. Bro, that sh*t was raw as f**k. That was one of my favorite shows of my life last night, real sh*t.” He returns to rolling his blunt on an ¡Hola! magazine splayed across his lap to catch the guts. It falls apart, crumbling in his hand. “Look at this sh*t,” he says jokingly before giving it another round of repairs.
If you ask Smino, this touring sh*t is easy. It’s just an extension of the fun he has while actually making the music. “I'm my biggest fan, so I be waiting on me to make some new sh*t so I can bump some new Smino,” he says. “After I make a song and leave the studio, I go to sleep to that song, wake up to that song, bump it on the way to wherever I'm going. Play it to everybody when I see them.”
Similarly to how he digests his own music, Smino fans have the same musical appetite. It takes a lot to get down to the nitty-gritty of what Smi spelled out for listeners on blkswn. The ears of lazy listeners are challenged from the first second of the album to the very last, with all dead space and wasted words nixed from the final product. “I try to keep it that every second of the song is interesting,” he says, reflecting on how he strung together the 18-track project. In addition to that, one of Smino’s most noticeable and most intriguing attributes is his thick St. Louis twang, stretching vowels and clipping words and phrases basted in Southern flavor. Paired with his penchant for riddles, stacked metaphors and run-it-back plays on words, it makes for a difficult, yet rewarding musical experience when it comes to decoding his discography.
While his lyrics are akin to the standard rapper material his contemporaries are also putting out, the difference is in the packaging. “Good riddance/Shawty she be comin off the top like some good writtens/Pulpittin,’ Every time I speak, where the deacons?/Need a good witness,” he raps charismatically through the bass lines of “Father Son Holy Smoke.” A clear understudy of Twista and Eminem, he can shoot out rapid-fire, tongue-twister couplets when he wants to. “I'm from the Lou, Gimme Da Loot, All of my n***as shoot/Pocket on Winne the Pooh, I'm feelin' my juice, she feelin' it too/I'm in a league of my own, nobody putting me on,” he spits on “B Role.”
Smino loves to actually write out these lyrics, visualize and marvel at his lyrical somersaults before he shares them. In fact, he sends or uploads most of his lyrics to Rap Genius straight from his phone, that way there’s no room for guesswork. His listeners work hard enough; no point in them not being able to get correct lyrics to sing alongside at his shows, an impressive feat all its own. “One standout moment was this nerdy white boy screaming the lyrics to ‘Spitshine’ at the top of his lungs behind me,” says Daveed Audel, an attendee at last night’s show. It was his first time seeing Smino live, and he was admittedly thrown off to see so many people in a diverse crowd rapping along word for word. “I was amazed by the amount of people that knew his music.”
Having multiple demographics relate to one’s art is a beautiful thing and a clear goal of today’s newer artists with Internet-grown fan bases. Nothing quite beats looking out into a crowd and seeing the hued faces that make up that proverbial black swan. There’s an inexplicable power in black assembly, a wonder he details in “Long Run.” Let him tell it, black people are the Earth’s gold.
I realized that in clusters they can't touch us
I've been tusslin' with my brothers and my sisters about lovin'
'Cause this country don't love us
It ain't for us, mane, f**k 'em
“The coolest sh*t about being black is you feel like you're a part of a cool a** coalition,” he says. “Now more than ever, we have more opportunities to do miraculous sh*t because we can find each other, help each other from a distance and just push each other forward from any parts of the world.”
As a black man navigating this white world and industry to match, one question remains: how will Smino propel his artistry while staying true to himself and the people, places, and things that bring him joy? Easy. Own his truth, create on his own timeline, love, laugh, live and the rest will follow as planned. His “Maraca” intro put it best: “Life insurance is really doin' exactly what you like and love/'Cause that's the sh*t that keep the fire lightin' up/Get out the dark and spark, yeah gon' head, lighten up/No gravity on me, one with the sky.”