Tony Shhnow: A Tough Guy Rapper Chooses Love
“This is that shit right here, that’s the GOAT!” Tony Shhnow is looking at a portrait of Lil Wayne on the fourth floor of the Fotografiska Museum in New York. Strolling through the museum’s “Conscious, Unconscious” hip-hop exhibit, draped in a black-and-pink plaid-jacket-and-pants combo, he’s been reserved, taking in famous photos of Big Daddy Kane and EPMD with the astuteness of a historian. But upon encountering this image, he abandons all pretense of coolness, bouncing around like a kid in a candy store as he gushes about Wayne and the development of Southern rap with an encyclopedic enthusiasm. Then his mood boils over: “Why’s his picture so damn small?!”
Right now Shhnow, 27, is on the verge of entering a new stage of his own evolution. His latest album, Love Streak, released April 28, represents a complete deviation from the sound he’s championed and the subject matter he’s utilized — putting threats and trapping aside in favor of emotional excavation. “I’ve been wanting to change the dynamic of myself,” the Atlanta-based rapper, born Carrington Wilson, says. “I felt like I was being boxed in.” That won’t be a problem after people hear this project, which takes you through Shhnow’s personal experiences on the roller coaster of life and love. “I mean, this isn’t a topic that a lot of cool, young niggas be rapping about,” he adds. “It’s not something a lot of guys are even looking to talk about.”
Since 2020, Shhnow’s been forging a path as one of plugg music’s finest sons. The subgenre’s hazy, trance-like coziness provided a comfortable world for him to thrive within, nimbly weaving in and out of the saccharine melodies with expert precision. Shhnow’s raps possess a beautiful paradox — his delivery is simple and concise, allowing him to make basic metaphors and grisly anecdotes land like Muhammad Ali jabs. His voice is malleable enough that his momentary ventures away from the blown-out 808s of his usual sound — like the sample-heavy stretches on his critically acclaimed 2022 Reflexions, or his Southern-rap-classics remix project from 2020, Black Billionaire Club — still register as familiar, instead of ill-advised shots in the dark.
Those departures were measured, done in moderation, so as to not spook his listeners. “I study rappers,” he says. “As soon as they switch up their shit, I’ve seen the reactions that everyone around has.” But soon his creative curiosity gave him a reason to fully head into a unique avenue.
Shhnow started working on Love Streak in January 2022, without truly having an idea of what the project would sound like. The first song he completed, “Don’t B Affraid,” which features him rapping over a bass-pounding sample flip of Kut Klose’s 1995 track “Surrender,” was inspired by an outside source. “My roommate picked that one — that was the only sample somebody else picked on this album,” Shhnow says, recalling that he had started rapping off R&B beats at the beginning of his career. “He was like, ‘Bruh, you haven’t rapped on ‘Surrender’ yet!?’ He literally got his friend to make the beat for me — the homie’s homie is the only producer on the tape that I hadn’t worked with before.”
Around the same time, Shhnow entered into a relationship with his girlfriend at the time. He says the positive effects of a flourishing love began to seep into other parts of his life. Shhnow decided to take better care of himself (“taking bubble baths and lighting candles and shit,” he says). He found himself spending more time with the women in his life, whether it was his friends, mom, or girlfriend. Intimate dinners turned into late nights spent talking, listening to Nineties R&B deep cuts, and watching Black love films like Poetic Justice and Two Can Play That Game for hours upon hours. He started to become more accepting of the aspects of his personality that ran opposite to the abrasive artistic persona he’d curated, all while continuing to work on new music.
“I felt more in touch with my human side — like it wasn’t all about being tough,” Tony says. “I second-guessed myself a lot, but I thank God that people love me. I got beautiful women that told me I’m amazing. Being self-aware was the key throughout the whole process, or else I don’t know if I would have been as vulnerable or emotional.”
Shhnow is someone who prides himself in living his raps, no matter what the situation. And for the album’s 16 tracks, he had one muse to fuel his storytelling engine. He would go through his girlfriend’s playlists — stocked with the likes of Sade, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu — and play the tracks he was working on for her (and the rest of his inner circle). For him, it felt natural to write about love and relationships because he was in the thick of it, with a subject to bare his soul about.
“It was easier to get in-depth,” Shhnow says. “Normally, I’m my own muse, and sometimes I don’t want to talk about certain shit. But with having a girl, I was able to ask her if she was comfortable with me talking about all this. It helped to get more into detail about it. I had to feel all those feelings, too.”
Love Streak chronicles the life cycle of a relationship, baring the cracks and insecurities that lead to its demise while celebrating the joy that arises in the middle. Working primarily with close collaborators GRiMM Doza and Cashcache, Shhnow felt that he had a familiar base in order to stretch himself creatively. R&B samples dominate the landscape, harkening back to the soundtracks of the movies he fell in love with from his childhood. No sample was off limits: a warped version of a legendary Sade banger (“Unordinary Drugs”), an angelic vocal sample of an early Solange track (“If It Wasn’t For Me”), and a soothing chop of an iconic SWV ballad (“Sometimes, Pt. 2”) infuse soul and earnestness into his raps. Shhnow studied the soundtracks of the past, wanting to make each track feel like the emotional climax in a romance film, hoping to harness the feelings of the first kiss being shown onscreen.
He maintains that songs about love don’t have to be sappy or slow, ensuring that the intensity that his fans fell in love with is still present. He balances vulnerability and his trademark confidence: “You want someone to love, you let me/You want someone to fuck you good, then you could call me,” he raps on the dazzling standout “On the Street,” where he’s assisted by North Carolina rapper Mavi. He doesn’t try to paint a rosy picture of relationships — referring to himself as “lost and broken” on the aptly named “ ILY/Ih8u” — instead positing love as a fickle emotion that’s capable of inducing bliss or pain.
“It was an important learning process for myself because when entering a relationship while making this, I thought I had to be perfect,” Shhnow says. “I had to become comfortable with realizing there’s no exact definition of what perfect is.… Your partner should be a friend, and you don’t always like your friends.”
Shhnow recognizes the risk he undertook with Love Streak, moving away from the preconceived notions of what a Tony Shhnow album should sound and feel like. But that nervous energy, that anxiety, made it clear that this was a risk worth taking. He tried to make sensitivity and intimacy sound as exhilarating as when he was rapping about trapping and gold chains (shit he also appreciates). By the end, he experienced an internal shift that he hopes will carry him forward in his next era.
“I became so self-aware it’s crazy,” Shhnow says. “I learned so much about myself, the good and the bad. I was able to study myself to be a better human.” He laughs. “My next girlfriend, man, she’s gonna love me.”