The 25-year old rapper and crooner Smino is set to be one of the next big voices to burst from the Midwest. His gorgeous love-funk single “Anita” is currently at a million plays across YouTube and SoundCloud, he’s currently on a headlining tour and his self-reflective rhymes and melodic delivery anchor a recent debut LP, Blkswn. This moment has been years in the making: He’s literally lived in studios and moved back and forth between his native St. Louis to Chicago; all the while developing a signature sound that combines elements of funk, electro, soul and hip-hop. And not even a fractured right foot can slow him down.
Only a few dates into the Swanita tour, he hurt himself in an impromptu mosh pit. Injured yet unfazed, the rapper born Chris Smith Jr. will perform on crutches for the remainder of the tour. The circumstances haven’t affected his spirits or his high energy performance. On stage Smino is animated, compelling and visibly ecstatic. He attributes this gift for performing – as well as his overall approach to songwriting – to an upbringing in church “Like, the ability for me to find a melody or a harmony or like move a concert? It’s just me seeing how churches work,” he says.
The day after an explosive performance – a sold-out show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom – Smino is basking in the afterglow in an Airbnb’d duplex on Manhattan’s Midtown East. Sporting a do-rag, T-shirt and sweatpants, Smino is laying back on a leather sectional flanked by his band and touring party, who are polishing off some Popeye’s and sorting the small vacuum-packed bags of weed that have just been delivered. Surrounded by some of Chicago’s finest young musicians (producer Monte Booker; singer, rapper, and video director Jean Deaux; multi-instrumentalist Phoelix), Smino tells Rolling Stone about Blkswn, how the diaspora fuels his funk and how to write a love song in 2017.
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What are the origins of Blkswn?
My album was called Zero Fatigue at first—
Which is your crew’s name.
Which is another reason I didn’t name the album Zero Fatigue. Zero Fatigue is much bigger than one album, it’s some continuous shit for us. I did the Red Bull Sound Select thing where they put a producer with an artist and Sango was my produced that they [put me with]. I requested the nigga Sango ’cause I always liked his beats.
Y’all did that joint, “Lemon Pon’ Goose” together. Do you, Jean or Sango have a Caribbean backgrounds?
So look, Sango spends a lot of time traveling. He love Brazil and he’s just really into all that. And he told me his grandfather brought him up on African drums like they used to just play [and] play till they hands get tired and so I came up learning African drums as well. I don’t know which region of Africa I’m from or none of that. I know how to play bongos, congas, all kinds of auxiliary percussion instruments and stuff like that so that’s just in me and she’s [turns to Jean Deaux] How do you say it? Afro Latina. So it just was me understanding that aspect of the music and being inspired by it and then Sango just knowing to do. We was in the studio, she was like, “Me ah go and steal ya heart” and he was like, “Me ah go and steal ya ‘art.” It was just a collective effort of us just studying some shit that was already pretty much in us. Just trying to bring that out. That’s something we do a lot as black people these days anyway.
It’s some diaspora stuff. Now that we’ve moved into this global phase of having easy access to music from everywhere, we’re getting in touch with all of this stuff. Like if you listen to Drake or the Wale record or a lot of stuff that’s happening with black people in London or Nigeria or the Caribbean …
Everything is pretty much mixed up right now, but I fuck with it, bro. I’m a drummer, so my first love in life is the drum and my favorite thing that I learned how to do is play a 3/2 clave pattern but put in on like: [mimics the sounds with his mouth]. Like I can’t do it right now, my foot fucked up, but after I learned that so much shit got unlocked. I’m like damn, my body feel free! Like I’m not as stiff as I was. Shit like that helped my rap patterns and even with “Lemon Pon’ Goose” I was able to do [patterns] like [flowing rapidly] “I’m feelin’ amazing/I’m gettin’ acquainted with shawty.” Some Sean Paul shit! Actually the same Sean Paul flow.
So, why is it called Blkswn?
I was just in the studio with Sango making the song. I only said the words “black swan” in the song once: “I ain’t never ain’t in no rush, I ain’t no Russian, I’m a black swan.” If you listen to Blkswn I’m coming to grips with a lot of shit. It’s a lot of shit I done figured out and I’m 25 now. So it’s a lot of shit that I done figured out, a lot of shit that I done been through, fuckin’ failed at and like realized this is what I’m supposed to be doin’ at the end of it. And it’s always been [music]. I just wrote this album as honestly as I could. I didn’t tell any stories that weren’t true to me. I didn’t do any storytelling, there wasn’t anything but my own truths. This whole album is just straight up day-by-day shit that I’ve experienced. Blkswn is going from feeling alienated on [2015 EP] Blkjptr to like becoming this muhfuckin’ black swan and being comfortable in that shit.
You grew up in the church, how do your parents feel about you making secular music?
They proud as hell of me. My parents ain’t prudes, man. There’s a difference between being in the church, being religious and having faith. I don’t hold my faith to another person’s standards – anybody’s. One thing I learned in church is your relationship with God is personal. I make the most honest music I can to myself. I don’t try to appease anyone. I just make the most honest shit I can. My music is positive too. The most crazy shit i talk about is gettin’ pussy but [sucks teeth] everybody get pussy. That’s nothin’ major, that’s our biology.
There aren’t too many love songs in rap these days, can you talk about “Anita”?
I just got a lot of love around me. I get a lot of love from women and I got a lot of love for women. Women go through a lot of shit, bro. My mama been through a lot of shit. Every woman I’ve ever known been through hella more shit than me. I don’t know, bruh, it’s hard for me to make a song [that doesn’t express that].
I don’t understand how these niggas be really hate women out here. I think misogyny has a lot to do with overthinking your part as a man. You seen Baby Boy? It’s this attitude like, “I’m your man and I do for you, so I can do whatever the fuck I want.” I have to stop myself from that [kind of thinking] all the time. I’m not above this. I’m definitely a misogynist [at times], definitely guilty of that.
You grew up in a society that’s sexist.
But I also grew up in a house with four big sisters and my mama. And my dad with my mama. I’m lucky, I understand some shit. That’s why I don’t be on niggas’ heads. Y’all didn’t come up like me, I get it. I just get some shit y’all don’t get right now. If y’all willing to listen y’all would prolly get more pussy. It’s just a lot of shit that we discredit women for and we don’t understand the amount of shit they have to deal with.