When Daniel Anthony Farris won the first season of Netflix’s hip-hop reality competition, Rhythm & Flow, he got some advice from one of the show’s MC judges, T.I. “Enjoy this moment,” the veteran rapper told him. “You’re going to be chasing this high for the rest of your career.” But Farris — better known as D Smoke — says he respectfully disagreed: “I knew [the show] was just a steppingstone to put me on a platform to do all the things that the world is now seeing that I can do.”
He wasn’t wrong: Almost one year after his 2019 win, the Inglewood, Calif., native earned two Grammy nominations: best new artist and best rap album, for his official debut, Black Habits. With its cinematic pacing, shape-shifting soundscapes and his own limber flow and world-weary positivity, the set likely appeals to the kinds of voters who have made two-time best rap album winner Kendrick Lamar a Grammy darling in recent years. But while D Smoke’s team had a modest plan for potential recognition — including a Grammy.com interview to familiarize Recording Academy members with his story — they say they were shocked by the nods.
“They took us out of the blue,” says Thomas “DJ Shanxx” Culley, D Smoke’s music and marketing manager. “We just wanted to put out a fantastic project to make sure that D Smoke represented.” The rapper himself was more surprised by the timing: “It was one of those things that I wanted to accomplish in my career,” he says. “And it just came early.”
Many in the hip-hop community were similarly taken aback by the dual nominations, given D Smoke’s unlikely path to success as a former schoolteacher-turned-competition winner. (Some Twitter users even snarked that voters may have mixed him up with the late New York rapper Pop Smoke, an artist who made a much stronger charts impact in 2020.) “He has a great album, great songs,” says Carl Chery, creative director/head of urban music at Spotify. “But it’s not like he has a bunch of hits or is someone [who relies] on the typical Instagram shenanigans to get noticed. He’s more traditional in that sense.”
What D Smoke does have working in his favor, however, is recognition among many Grammy insiders, thanks to his years of industry work both as a songwriter and with his own music well before his Rhythm & Flow breakout. “The musician’s musicians know who he is,” says his manager, Greg Johnson, “and a lot of those are voting members.”
Two other factors may have helped. One is that, in 2020, many of hip-hop’s heavy hitters — including not only Lamar, but each of the winners of the last five best rap album awards — didn’t release an LP, leading to more open slots for first-timers. (Of the five artists now up for the award, Nas is the only previous category nominee.) The other is that two of those aforementioned winners, Cardi B and Chance the Rapper, were judges on Rhythm & Flow. “It makes total sense for the Grammy voters to pay attention to that show,” says Chery. “An endorsement from these previous winners — that had to help.”
Despite the majority of newcomers in the best rap album category, it’s still a seasoned crew compared with most artists at hip-hop’s center. At 35, D Smoke is the youngest of the bunch. That has drawn some criticism from the rap community, which sees the nominations as out of touch with the genre’s most vital artists.
“Hip-hop needs balance,” D Smoke allows. “In country music, if somebody comes out with a new hit song and they got gray hair and a beard, nobody’s like, ‘He’s too old to write a hit!’ But why is it that hip-hop is looked at like, ‘Oh, it’s the teenagers. It’s only for lost souls’? Why is it only for lost souls when it’s guiding the younger generation? But of course, I’m a schoolteacher — what do I know?”