Before the rapper Smino dropped his official debut, blkswn, in 2017, he started to loathe the music on it. “There was a point when I got to the end of the project where I was like, ‘I hate that shit,'” he recalls. “Then people are like” — he adopts a comically high, overly proper voice — “‘Oh my God! Breathtaking! Wowzers!’ Oh, you like it?”
One of those fans was T-Pain, who recorded a blazing-hot verse for a remix of Smino’s single “Anita” and danced irrepressibly in the accompanying video. Another was SZA, who took the rapper with her on tour. blkswn earned Smino entry into hip-hop’s growing tier of artists who have steady, dedicated listeners without any major hits to their name.
Like many artists in this club — especially Smino’s Chicago-based collaborators like Saba and Noname — Smino is not particularly interested in the fierce sound that generally earns rappers the attention of the people programming radio stations and marquee streaming playlists. His rap makes room for southern R&B and imperfect harmony singing; the drums are inevitably cooled out, like nth-wave neo soul. And his artistic metabolism is wonderfully slow: He has hardly released any music in the 18 months between blkswn and Noir, which comes out today.
In August, Smino sat with Rolling Stone before a downtown Manhattan shopping spree and a performance at Afropunk to discuss how he got into hip-hop, the importance of moving from St. Louis to Chicago, and being an album-focused artist in a singles-driven era.
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When did you start making music?
It started on the drums. I be just beating on shit when I was a little kid. My grandma made my dad buy me some bongos. From that I did more and more music shit, and from that, I began my rap shit, probably around seven. Kid shit, bro. My pops got me anything I was interested in for my music.
My parents didn’t really listen to rap. I found rap on my own. I was listening to all kinds of different shit, a bunch of jazz music, a bunch of soul music, so much gospel music. I found rap cause I’d go to my cousin’s house. He’d be playing Bone Thugz, Tupac, Eminem, all type of shit. Damn, that’s tight! Pastor Troy. Damn, I don’t ever listen to this at home! This shit tight!
I started writing, and I was good at that shit. I had a little book, bro, a rhyme book. It was like a dictionary, but with every word that rhymes with every word. I read the whole book. I used to freestyle on the playground, and I could rhyme anything with anything. It taught me about slant rhyme.
How did you parents feel about you rapping since they didn’t listen to it?
They actually didn’t fuck with it at first, mainly because they noticed that I’d rather do that than anything else. It’s like, don’t put your eggs in a basket, you’re only fucking ten. But I was good at that shit. I was in school one day and I wrote an extremely vulgar-ass rap. I was talking about pussy. And my teacher just happened to be over my shoulder reading that shit overly offended. She took that shit from me, scanned it, passed it to my parents. They made me read every fucking word aloud, and every time I said some cussin’ ass vulgar shit, I got my ass popped. Childhood shit. We lived on a crip-ass block in St. Louis. The biggest crips you ever seen. The way rap was portrayed and shit, they didn’t want me to have any part of that. Like any good parents should.
But I kept making beats and shit. I was really focused on that and playing the drums. I didn’t have no studio. I started putting my shit out I’d say right in high school. Hella people from my school was like, this is hard as fuck. I put out my first real mixtape 2012, Smeezy.com. It’s still online. I wanted to leave it up so people could feel the growth, you feel me.
What got you interested in moving to Chicago?
I heard about how shit was moving, so I wanted to see what was up. That shit was kind of close, and they had the world looking at them. And I fuck with their community, there are people there that actually fuck with each other. I wanted to have that, but it was hard to get that in my city. St. Louis is probably one of the most creative cities in the world. But grouping those people together is a fucking task. We so paranoid. We all traumatized and shit. Not trusting nobody. We always meet each other out of town. In St. Louis, you always by yourself.
My big cousin lived in Chicago. She was doing cool shit with Lupe [Fiasco] and shit — the Glow in the Dark tour [with Kanye West]. I’m like, fuck, bro, what the fuck! I’m seeing pictures of her with ‘Ye and shit. She went to Chicago, so I’m like, bet, I’m gonna go to Chicago, go to the same school as her — dropped out. Damn near got kicked out, ’cause of my grades. I never was in school. I always felt like I could figure out the shit I wanted to know. They give you 1,000 different shits a day. By the time the test came around, it’s like which part of my brain do I use? I need to be on my own pace, my own schedule.
My dad was don’t like go to school out [in Chicago], it’s expensive. But he also knew what I was doing — he’s the same dude who bought me a two-track back in the day. So I went to Columbia College in Chicago. My network was so crazy in the first semester. Damn near the first week. Once I met Classick [Smino’s manager] I met everybody, because everyone was trying to go to his studio. It was fate. I literally met him right away. Before school even started because I was on an academic trial.
I fell back because I wasn’t getting no money off that shit [rap]. I’m broke as hell. I had to live in Milwaukee because I was so fucked up on bread. My auntie live there. Then moved back to Chicago. Still ain’t have my shit together! But shit. Now I got my shit together. I wasn’t trying to make friends with niggas. I was just trying to get my shit poppin.’
Was there a moment where you feel like started getting attention?
When I put out S!Ck S!Ck S!Ck [in 2015]. I caught eyes at the right time. I was in the midst of making a sound with my producer Monte [Booker]. We found that bitch on that project. To this day, my core fans favorite is “Ruby Red,” “Raw,” “Ballet.”
What was the sound that you found?
I always had that bounce. But I love chords. If you got those chords, but it bounce, people are like damn, what’s this?
You still work heavily with Monte — what do you admire about his production?
I felt like he was limitless. I don’t like limitations. He can make anything. It’s damn near sickening, bro. He’s too good at making beats. I never seen nobody make beats like that. And he do it on [the beat-making program] FruityLoops. “Anita?” FL. “Netflix & Dusse?” FL. Everybody’s favorite song [of mine] was made on FL. Dude just had so much sound to offer. I feel like I can write any kind of song — you say, here’s a movie script, we need this kind of song, I can write that shit. My pen is my shit. Him with his beats, he can make anything. You have fun sitting behind him watching him make beats.
Did you have a specific vision in mind while making Noir?
I just didn’t want to make the same album. The music sounds fun as hell. I ain’t gonna say what it is and what it ain’t. It’s raw as fuck.
Everyone puts out a lot of music now, but you’ve been very patient.
It’s over for that shit, I’m about to flood the court, flood the market. I got too many sounds. I didn’t want to put that shit out, somebody get inspired by it, and they go with the sound somewhere else. Now motherfuckers know me. So shit, I’ma just put my music out.
But I’m more of an album artist. I got some shit. I ain’t aiming at the radio. It change so much, if you aim for it, you be behind. It’s running targets. Shoot ahead of them bitches. My next one after this one is a good chunk of done. And I hate my new album right now. So I think it’s about done.