'I Know Exactly What I Want': St. Louis Rapper Smino on New Album 'blkswn' and Focusing on What Comes Next
Smino is sitting in an AirBnB in New York City, answering questions while getting a haircut, as other crew members recline on a couch. The room has a relaxed vibe, but it’s been a hectic few months for the rapper/singer. He’s been performing around the country, despite injuring his leg on the tour’s second date in Pontiac, Michigan and taking stage on crutches ever since. Two days before our interview, he performed a sold out show at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan.
Smino was born and raised in St. Louis “with four big sisters, mom and dad in the crib, and a big ass Rottweiler.” Both parents were musically active in church, and work as professional musicians now, exposing the young artist to gospel, funk and jazz. "I just always felt like music was music," he says of bridging the gap between his parents' music and his own. "I like to call gospel 'honest s--t.' That’s gospel too."
Smino began writing and producing as a kid, and got into his recording groove when he moved to Chicago in 2010 to attend Columbia College. He dropped out in his freshman year, and traveled back and forth to St. Louis before finally settling in the Windy City in 2014. Between those two stints in Chicago, he met his team: his then-future manager Chris Classick who gave him unlimited access to record at his studio, producer Monte Booker, and the rest of his Zero Fatigue crew. "This dude cutting my hair right now is an engineer," he remarks, referring to his barber/collaborator L10MixedIt, who worked on a few songs for Chance the Rapper's smash LP Coloring Book. "Years later, he’s got a Grammy and s--t."
With connections to two of the most headline-dominating cities in the country right now, Smino stays connected with both. The Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri had a huge impact: he had a show in town the night before, one of his friends took a photo of Brown’s body that circulated around the news, and he attended the police-militarized candlelight vigil the next day. The shooting, Smino says, made him decide to push harder to use his voice for good. "It made me feel like, s--t, I’m actually feeling like I ain’t been helpful just being out here," he relates. "That’s kind of how I got to where I’m at -- pushing so hard [to do] something better for the city."
As far as Chicago goes, he appreciates being part of such a blossoming creative hub: he maintains working relationships with the likes of Noname, Saba, and Chance The Rapper. “We all just some underdogs that’s talented, that don’t give a f--k about what the rest of the world sounds like,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of a community like that, it’s not something I had the luxury of growing up in St. Louis. All these different people to give me this good advice and keep my mental sane while all this s--t is growing so rapidly."
With unrestricted studio time, he and producer Monte Booker developed a strong chemistry. Booker, who has cited Timbaland and Flying Lotus as influences, crafts warm, hazy backdrops while integrating quirky, unconventional sounds that add character. Smino himself harnesses a melodic, springy flow with rhymes that vary from sensual to reflective, somber to empowering. Smino’s S!CK S!CK S!CK (2015) and blkjuptr (2016) EPs built him a fan base that packed venues on a “blkjuptr live” tour.
His full-length debut blkswn sees him and Booker at their creative peak, and the accolades have reflected such: Smino was Apple Music’s New Artist of the Week, sold out shows continue, and positive press is rolling in. He says that between blkjuptr and blkswn, he did a lot of soul searching while breaking up with an ex-girlfriend and staying to himself -- citing the lyric from blkjuptr where he raps, “it’s crazy how the best move I made all year was standing still.”
“[I was able to] flush out the man-made problems I was having and just really get in touch with my spirit. You just gotta quiet yourself down sometimes,” Smino says. “I wanted the people from blkjuptr to feel like they were going on a journey with me. blkswn sounds, to me, like I just conquered something. I know exactly what I want. And I’m not scared to ask for it, push for it, or fight for it.”
Now, it’s all about continuing his own journey and building with Zero Fatigue - which includes Booker, Jay2, Bari Allen, and Jean Deaux,, all of whom have begun to build their own audiences before dropping any projects of their own. He and the squad have begun to find success already, but as far as Smino is concerned, they have a long way to go.
“I try not to get caught up on s--t we’re doing too much -- I try to be on the s--t we’re about to be doing,” Smino says. “I’m still working to get somewhere, so I feel like this is just proving that I can make it there.”