D Smoke’s Poignant ‘Black Habits’ Is A Master Class In Top-Tier Songwriting

The RX is Uproxx Music’s stamp of approval for the best albums, songs, and music stories throughout the year. Inclusion in this category is the highest distinction we can bestow, and signals the most important music being released throughout the year. The RX is the music you need, right now.

I’ll be honest: When I was informed that the winner of Netflix’s rap competition reality show Rhythm + Flow was a 34-year-old Spanish teacher from Inglewood named D Smoke, I was skeptical. Not that I suspected a scam or thought that a legitimately good, insightful, viable artist couldn’t come from a reality show — but as my colleague Andre Gee astutely pointed out, historically, these shows haven’t always valued legitimate musical talent as much as they have so-called “trauma porn.” Many shows in the reality competition vein often award the most compelling — read: trauma-filled, heartbreaking, or otherwise pitiful — personal narratives and rarely have these success stories panned out.

Shame on me. When I finally gave in and checked out D Smoke’s autumn 2019 mixtape Inglewood High, I wasn’t just pleasantly surprised — I became obsessed, to the point I greedily looked forward to his next release. That release, Black Habits, arrived this past Friday and D Smoke’s “debut” album aptly fulfills the high expectations set for it by his Rhythm + Flow win — then, it surpasses them. The last few years of so-called debut albums from rap artists — really, the culminations of years, sometimes up to a decade, of independently produced projects and steady improvement — have seen some truly stellar releases. Black Habits not only deserves to be mentioned among them, it might just be the strongest and most focused of them all.

From the beginning, it’d probably be natural for listeners to draw comparisons between D Smoke and another West Coast rap stalwart, Kendrick Lamar. Both rappers love to employ intricate cadences, densely-packed rhyme schemes, gymnastic wordplay, and murky, midtempo beats. Furthermore, there’s even a more personal connection between the two: Smoke’s brother is the soul singer SiR, who is signed to the same label as K. Dot, Top Dawg Entertainment. But while D Smoke and Kendrick share similarities, there are differences as well. Smoke’s flow is tighter and more uniform, and lyrically he’s prone to bursting into fits of Spanish throughout his more grounded verses about family, heritage, and social order.

He’s also much more politically and socially aware than Kendrick was at a similar point in his career. Chalk it up to D Smoke’s former profession or his age, but on songs like album opener “Bullies” and the Jill Scott-featuring “Sunkissed Child,” he’s quicker to draw more solid ties between the conditions and experiences of his inner-city upbringing to the external, political forces that often generate them. He’s also more overt in his self-loving lyricism; both versions of the titular “Black Habits” are full of praise for “Black Jesus” and “Black Moses,” and reminders that “everything you need, best believe, you all that.”

When Smoke wants to cut loose, though, he can in spades. “No Commas,” the lead single, employs a block-beating J.LBS beat to backtrack Smoke’s elaborate boasts, which include, “Writin’ ’til I don’t see no wrong, head to Rome on a flight / Then it’s bon appétit, better not be no bone in my swai.” The Inglewood rapper twists familiar, food-related flexes with ahead-of-their-time references to fish no other rapper has rapped about yet, then hops on “Gaspar Yanga” with West Coast godfather Snoop Dogg to drop a historical reference to leave listeners digging through encyclopedia indexes while Smoke promises to “apply pressure” to anyone who doubts his lyrical abilities.

The album is full of soulful moments, like the sensual love letter “Real Body” with Ari Lennox or the gospel-inflected reflections on the spiritual benefits of marijuana with his brother SiR on “Closer To God.” Throughout, recordings and skits recalling his father’s stint in prison offer a poignant throughline that culminates with the heart-wrenching “Like My Daddy,” a loving ode to his father told from the elder Farris’ perspective. Each moment is a still life photograph that Smoke imbues with vibrancy and emotion that displays just how committed to his pen game he really is. He has much more than rhythm and flow; he’s got charisma, talent, and star quality for days and one hell of a story to tell. Consider the lesson — never to judge an artist by their provenance — well-learned.

Black Habits is out now on WoodWorks Records / EMPIRE. Get it here.