“I’m a real soulful nigga, collard greens inside your speakers,” Smino rapped when he accompanied J. Cole and EarthGang on “Sacrifices” over three years ago. Both Smino and Cole have a penchant for unearthing the intertwined roots of hip-hop and the blues with tender melodies and concerns (Smino is particularly adept at blurring the lines between rap and soul with fuzzy trills and honeyed harmonies); it’s why they make an excellent duo when they reconnect on “90 Proof.” This time though, the elder MC is walking into Smino’s domain, as the single comes ahead of and is a part of Smi’s upcoming third album, Luv 4 Rent.
Love is Smino’s central meditation on the track backed by warm guitar and crisp drums; romantic love, the kind that stretches and molds you into something different, maybe better. “Don’t blame yourself for all the shit you see me do/ I’m getting used to being loved, girl/ The right way,” Smino confesses. He straddles the borders of rapping and singing, and in the post-hook, J. Cole joins him there in a refrain on loyalty: “I got a real one, if I was broke, she never would leave me, no.” Yet the hefty and quick-paced verse Cole doles out after is a lot less about love than it is the sort of laying low that might come with the kind of settling down Smino describes. “I bought a condo and it’s cozy, my neighbors nosey as fuck/ They see a young nigga walked in with his kids/ They don’t know who he is, they just know that he up.”
Through most of his verse, Cole’s cautious gloating deviates from Smino’s thematic path, but the Dreamville head does take melodic cues from the St. Louis rapper’s template, with a silky cadence complemented by dreamy backing vocals. And though the song is much smoother than the wince on its cover art implies, it ties nicely with another one of the ideas about the love he presents: that sometimes, it’s hard to swallow. “She want thе truth,” he says. “It’s 90 proof.”