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Sometimes, it feels like the only way to keep up with Smino’s fevered, stream of consciousness storytelling is to be in a dream state yourself as you listen to him yelp and croon his way over skittery, jazzy, funky loops like those of his previous singles, “Anita” and “Wild Irish Roses.” Fortunately, he’s become more accessible on his latest project, Noir, which, despite its moody-sounding moniker, is as bright as the St. Louisan rapper has ever sounded.
Like his forebearer Nelly, whose dominant run in the mid-2000s helped put St Louis and Missouri on the map, Smino incorporates sing-song melodies into a freewheeling flow that captivates and stuns listeners with bursts of unexpected, quotable goodness. However, in a departure from “tradition,” Smino has also swerved away from the glossier beats Nelly would commission from the likes of The Neptunes in favor of in-house, Dungeon Family-esque beats swimming in jazz and funk influences that complemented his hazy contemplation on on his debut album, Blkswn.
His move away from that sound, with brighter, even funkier productions on his latest, reflects Smino’s own personal shift from “underground rapper with a chip on his shoulder and point to prove” to “burgeoning hometown hero.” It’s a look that’s further illustrated with the video for “LMF” (short for “Lion Mufasa”), wherein Smino returns home to a triumphant reception, with even more eccentric quirks born of his newfound fame and wealth, but just as much humility and soulful, self-effacing candor.
The transition is similar to that on second and third albums from obvious influences Outkast, who also embraced their funkier, freakier tendencies while remaining grounded by relying on the foundation of home and hearth with ATLiens and Aquemini. With the surprisingly deep and warm Noir, Smino demands — and earns — a place among rap’s most colorful classics.
Much like Nelly, again, Smino leans on his close companions and crew, Zero Fatigue, consisting of rappers Bari and Jay2, singer Ravyn Lenae, and producer Monte Booker. However, whereas Nelly’s Derrty Ent. consisted mainly of the St. Lunatics, all St. Louis residents, Smino is the outsider of Zero Fatigue, who mostly hail from Chicago. This works to his advantage; while Booker’s soul-washed keys play the kite string to his imaginative flights of fancy and feats of festive wordplay, Smino is allowed to sputter and speakeasy chant his way through the percolating “Klink,” the trunk-rattling bounce of “Z4L,” and the tinkling seduction of “Fenty Sex” with Chicago upstart Dreezy, who delivers one of her best verses of 2018.
Smino’s cosmic slop is both elegant and vibrant, with jumpy, sinewy wordplay that throws the traditional “setup/payoff” structure to the breeze. On “Low Down Derrty Blues,” he smirks at a prospective bedtime partner: “Checked in a hotel tonight / A li’l early gotta set it right / If I could, I’d settle down in yo cellulite.” Then, amid the smoky jazz cafe essence of “Hoopti,” he brags “I don’t put my faith in man, a nigga known to be cowards / I’m a lion, I’m a Mayan, I feel like Terrence Howard / I’m like Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum and a fifty Roll Luigi, wood stack like a tipi,” referencing movies, video games, ancient history, and street knowledge all in the space of four bars with nary a pause for breath or explanation.
He’s thinking three steps ahead, but the type of chess he ponders is a sort that a rare few have ever even heard of, let alone mastered. Yet, here he is, maneuvering as deftly as a surgeon works his scalpel before stitching up each of his magnetic-sounding beats with inescapably catchy choruses that bring his alien thought processes back to a terrestrial level. We’re witnessing a master at work, a mixture of Picasso and Parliament, an artist from the future or from outer space who sees things differently, but might just wind up being the most influential of his generation.
Noir is out now via Zero Fatigue and Downtown Records. Get it here.