Smino on Why 'Noir' Was Better Than 'Blkswn,' Wanting to Form a Group With Noname & Saba and Unity Among Midwest MCs

Jessica Xie
Smino photographed on March 5, 2019 in New York City.

"When 2020 hits, for 10 years, they’re going to play whatever I put out next. On some Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Nelly shit."

Smino's seated at the piano, tickling out some chords, but his attention is elsewhere. It's a Tuesday afternoon in Times Square, at the Billboard office, and the St. Louis MC plucks LeBron James's name from a nearby conversation, then cuts his innocent keyboard flex short to make a little announcemnt to the room: "It's over for the Lakers." The room cackled with laughter.

He might not be able to talk basketball and play music at the same time, but make no mistake, the hyphenate is used to doing a few things at once. Since 2012, Smino's been showcasing his dynamic skillset -- he can sing and rap with elastic ease -- and putting on for his city and collaborators, like Noname and Saba. His musicality is limitless, as proven on his most recent offerings, 2017's blkswn and 2018's Noir.

"Performing my new shit is different," he says. "When I play 'KLINK' n---as be moshpitting and shit. I was talking to my manager -- it’s crazy, the perception game. I’ll play certain venues and do certain shit and sell it out, and the n---a who has hella more followers on Instagram can’t sell it out." 

With his confidence level through the roof, the preternatural entertainer discusses his biggest show yet, at Coachella in April; possibly forming a group with Saba and Noname; and his plan to make timeless music like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Nelly.

In your Rolling Stone interview, you call yourself an album artist. I thought it was dope that you took time to craft a 17-18 track project like NOIR.

Yeah, that shit is more about how I just like making music, bruh. I be making music. I don’t try to make music to fit into anything. I got my own kinda pool going on. I just never felt like I had to make that kind of music. I’ma always be like that.

You said you were trying to have more fun with this album. Did you?

Noir? Hell yeah. It sound like it. Motherfuckers favorite line off the album is “I’m too fuckin’ grown to teach you how to ride a dick.”

When you were finishing blkswn, you said towards the end of making it, you weren’t fucking with it, right? 

I hated that shit.

Why?

It wasn’t what I was finna play when I wanted to have fun. I was just me making music for myself. That’s probably the album I listened to the least out of all the music I ever made. I love it, though.

When was the last time you listened to it?

N---a, I don’t listen to that shit. I play it live all the time and I hear it at shows but it’s like muscle memory. Hearing “Anita” sounds weird because I’m so used to hearing it the live way versus the regular song way. It’s crazy because sometimes I do go back and listen to it and I’m like, “Who made this? How the fuck did you make this?”

Two different kind of dudes.

I’m the same n---a. My process and everything is different. I was in a whole different place when I made that song, bruh.

So when you were making Noir, you were having more fun the whole time.

Yeah, but I started making Noir like I wanted to make a mixtape. I didn’t want to think too hard, like I did about blkswn. I’m spending three years on the next album and n---as think I’m this mythological creature like you can’t fucking find him. I don’t want to be like that. I love this shit and I want to be in it. I want to be a part of it. Anybody that knows me knows I got a lot of music, so I’m just used to my music just me sitting on it and not ever using it and it just expires in my head. It may be good to somebody else but to me. Noir was more of let me get these songs off right now that I love.

Noir came out back in November. Looking back, what letter grade would you give it and why?

A++. The only reason I say A++ is I did everything I could at the moment to get that shit done how I wanted to. I always make grade-A music. I could have did things better. Maybe if I had more time to move around with it. I ain’t show it to nobody. I just dropped that shit. I was like “My album’s coming out next week.” I was talking to my manager like it’s crazy, the perception game. I’ll play certain venues and do certain shit and sell it out and the n---a who has hella more followers on Instagram can’t sell it out. Real shit. It really be like that. No shade to anybody.   

I was fortunate to have a manager who could put me onto shows early and make sure I was playing. Me realizing that shit, I was like, "Damn, bruh. I’ma just put my shit out because I got the people and like the 180,000 or something people who follow me, they actually fuck with me." Motherfuckers pull up. It ain’t from no cosign. Me having that mindset, I was like, I’m just finna drop this bitch, let the people love it, and move on with what I really want to work on, which is the album I was working on before I started even making Noir.

How would you say the chemistry between you and your producer Monte has elevated with each project?

The more you know a motherfucker. We didn’t really make Noir together. I started doing my own kind of shows because n---as got checks for Monte. He needs to go DJ over there, and I get checks doing this. Him growing and me growing, it makes both of us grow. We grew more as brothers and understanding each other. We lived together, worked through hella shit. Real life brother shit. And now us putting out Noir and feeling like, damn we ain’t really make it together. We made songs together and it’s easy for us to make music, but now we’re back to being more meticulous with it.

I’m so many songs into my next shit, but I’m trying to give myself more room to experiment because I can do so much with my voice and so much with my words. I’m probably finna make the album of the decade. When 2020 hits, for 10 years, they’re going to play whatever I put out next. On some Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Nelly shit.

That’s that next level shit. You can’t be talking that shit and then it’s mid.

I’ve never dropped mid shit in my life, and I don’t roll that shit up.

If you and Monte were and NBA duo, who would you two be?

We like a Kyrie [Irving] and [LeBron James]. We’re dangerous on our own, but you put us together and it’s magic still. The people love it and the people want to see it. Even to this day, you got the Bron and [Dwyane] Wade, but the Kyrie and Bron, there was just something about it. That’s different.

With you saying you had more fun making this album, I could only imagine since you’ve been touring, the amount of fun you have on stage performing. 

That shit tight. Performing my new shit is different. When I play “KLINK” n---as be mosh pitting and shit.

On some joints on the album, you’re really crooning. When you walk into the room, do you define yourself as “I’m Smino, The Rapper,” “Smino, The Artist” or ”Smino, The Singer?”

People always be like, “What type of music do you make?” I really be like, “I don’t know. Whatever the fuck I feel like making.” I’ll make something, something with the Irish bagpipes. Anything. I ain’t got no genre, but I feel like I be rapping. My words, I’m silly as shit. You go break down my lyrics, I play too much. I evolve my writing process in a lot of different ways and even with the wordplay, I’m more selective when I use it versus just straight talking. That just added so much more to my shit. N---as been growing, man.  

When you’re doing a joint with a Big Sean or with a Chance The Rapper, or even when you were at the Dreamville camp, around these caliber of MCs, how do you scale yourself lyrically?

I just do what they’re not doing, because I could do whatever. I just be like, whatever you want to do on this, we could do it and I do what they’re not doing. Everybody at the Dreamville camp, amazing ass rappers, rap circles around n---as, but everybody’s rapping. So anytime I hopped on a song, I get to singing and it sounds like a breath of fresh air ‘cause I’m just crooning that bitch. Granted, n---as do be crooning, but I got a certain way I do it because I still rap with it.

Last time you were out here, you, Saba and Noname had New York on tilt with her Brooklyn Steel show and then, you guys performed “Ace” on Fallon. Talk about the bond you guys have.

They’re the first people that ever popped up on me in Chicago. Noname, Saba and Mick Jenkins. Mick pulled up and I seen his tall ass, and I look over and I see Saba and Noname standing together and I’m like, if I want to be working with artists, I want to be working with them. Just for them to be at my show on some random shit; I didn’t even know they knew who I was. It was the first time I ever sensed some type of community on the rap side. I had that on the music side and I knew musicians and on the producer shit but on the rap side, they were my first artist homies.

The midwest must be different because we don’t get that kind of support over here with artists simply going to shows just because.

I still go to shit. We go to these spots in Chicago more so too. There’s certain spots. We’ll go to Emporium. I played Emporium, Chance played Emporium. Emporium is an arcade and bar and it’s two different sides and maybe a 100 people could fit, but n---as would turn up in that bitch and get drunk, play games and go outside and smoke weed. That’s just the type of shit that Chicago be on. N---as don’t think too hard about it like, “We’re pioneering this.” Like nah, n---as just want to kick it.

What is it like walking the streets of St. Louis and Chicago with the level of stardom you’ve acquired now?

It depends on where I’m at. It’s always some love somewhere. But I don’t really do that. Even when I’m outside, I’m coolin'. I’m in a hoodie and shit. I’m smooth. It’s so weird not knowing somebody and you don’t know that they know you. That’s the weirdest feeling ever, still to this day. I be trying to not assume people know me. I see that starting to happen with some people, people just assume people know them.

Going back to the trio of you, Noname and Saba: Have y’all thought about forming a group?

Have you thought about it?

Today, I thought about it. You all are winning individually, but it might be too soon.

Exactly, I feel like it would benefit us to do that shit at the right time. We working on it, though. Every time we’re around each other we be talking about this shit like, “What we gonna call this shit?” But we could send each other every time we make a song. Saba and Noname aren’t on Noir and I don’t think Noname’s on Saba’s [Care For Me] album, but we still show each other the same love. We’re a camp in a way. These are really my friends.

It gotta be fire that all of y’all dropped critically acclaimed albums at the same time.

We did that shit twice. When I dropped blkswn, that was right around [Noname's album] Telefone and Telefone was months after [Saba's] Bucket List. I always felt like Saba should have been bigger than what he was when I first met him because this n---a is damn near one of the best rappers. I love them, man. I hope we do this shit for real.

Knowing that you have Coachella coming up, will you change up your performance routine?

I just learned this. I just played this festival called Laneway in Australia, but I had shows in between. It taught me some crazy shit because I had my shows and then the festival, and in my head, I said my shows would be more lit than the festival because the people are here for me. It was the opposite down there. The festival was way crazier than the show. Shit, you outside. Use your outside voice. I may do more shouting. We outside, let’s tee up. Honestly, I haven’t had an amazing night time festival set yet where I have all the lighting I want. Actually I have. It was in Brussels. It was me and [Young] Thug. I can’t wait. N---as don’t want me on their slots, like the award show performance slots and shit like that.

I always feel like you have your studio artists, then you have your live performers.

You got your LeBrons: good in the locker room and on the court. I feel like I’m both of them. Studio, I’m crazy. I engineer. I can record myself and a lot of n---as don’t know how to record themselves. A lot of n---as can’t make music on their own if they don’t have another n---a in the room. I can do anything. Anything pertaining to music that I need to do, I could make a whole album myself. I could mix that bitch. I could do all that shit. But my n---a Kenny, Rick Rubin told him, “You don’t get extra credit for doing everything yourself.” With that being said, I love everyone on my team. Me having an amazing team in the studio with me, I’m amazing in the studio at all times. Me having a raw ass band and a raw ass production shit on stage with me. That’s why I sound like Bron because I be putting that team together, too.

You brought up the album. Do you have a concept in mind or a title?

This ain’t even shit, the stage I’m at right now. I promise. Where I’m planning to take this shit, I’m about to really go in.

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