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Smino - NOIR Music Album Reviews

The second album from the Chicago MC is lighter and more fun than his debut, focusing on his incredibly versatile voice within a warm palette of sludgy R&B and neo-funk.

Listening to Smino’s second album NOIR led me to an essay James Baldwin wrote for The New York Times called, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” Baldwin makes his point simply in the title but continues in the first paragraph: “ meant to define the other—and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.” That came to mind when I read something Smino tweeted a few weeks ago, “dnt correct my grammar hoe I spelt it dat way kuz das high say it,” which also feels a bit like an echo of a Dunbar poem. Either way, Smino is working within tradition by bending his words to his will and through his Blackness.

NOIR is above all an album about language: Smino throws a million different voices into the mix, sometimes all at once. His default singing voice—which he uses to rap as well—is weightless and honeyed to the point that it’s hard to tell if he’s in a falsetto. He shrieks, whispers, squeaks, mumbles, and sometimes stops just a few notes from outright yodeling. He doubles his vocals and self-harmonizes everywhere, and sometimes he breaks a song down into a doo-wop vamp that could easily double as an audition for Boyz II Men—if D’Angelo was singing lead. On “MERLOT” Smino and one other singer conjure up a knotty harmony like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

All of those vocal tricks help Smino shape words to make them rhyme unexpectedly or to unlock new spaces inside them by folding them up into his breath. “I'm flee like 10 puppies/These Japanese/I don't drink champagne/But fuck it, clack the drinks.” You could sing that sentence to yourself a million times and never arrive at the way Smino raps it. Listen to Smino rap it once and you’ll never revert back from the upswing at the end of “10 puppies” so that it somehow rhymes with “Japanese” or the way he makes a four-syllable utterance of “champagne” feel like a graceful pirouette.

Smino never explains or calls attention to them but these moments are everywhere on NOIR sometimes to the point of bogging things down with cleverness. On the same song he makes “real freaky” sound like “Rafiki” to force a Lion King reference and accomplish nothing else. On another he rhymes “Shibuya” with “she boo, yeah” and “see-through dress.” The production is so warm and soft and despite all the maneuvers, Smino is so understated that it sometimes sounds like he’s whisper singing brags under a velvet blanket.

For the most part, NOIR is a raunchy bedroom party album where Smino would rather put a wet towel under the hotel bathroom door than be stuck in the club. He’s also downright hilarious and endlessly sassy. On “HOOPTI” he calls back to his single “Netflix & Dusse” and raps his idea of a perfect night: “Chicken strips and scary movies—romance.” At one point, on the throbbing R&B track “Z4L,” Smino snowballs into an all-out Bugs Bunny impression and ends up saying, “Check my color palette/White just like a bunny wabbit,” without breaking the mood, but also without making a point. He does this often: a funny voice that’s just a funny voice, a line that’s just clever and nothing else. Still, the revelation of his verses usually only clicks in on the third or fourth listen and can still feel like a discovery.

He’s has spent the last couple years helping build the artist collective Zero Fatigue, which also includes the singer Ravyn Lenae and the producer Monte Booker, who has helped Smino arrive at a warm palette of sludgy R&B and neo-funk here. Thanks to Booker in particular, many of the songs on NOIR are freckled with weird and fidgeting sounds. None is more forward about it than “KLINK,” which crumples a spooky clavichord or a harpsichord riff into a dramatic banger. Smino also produced “KRUSHED ICE” himself, giving it an enormous and unfurnished room of a beat meant for whispering weird flexes—it sounds like a Valee song even before he shows up. Almost everywhere else, Smino gives a precise delivery, but here he’s made up the room for Valee and burrowed into his flow.

NOIR is much less serious and autobiographical than Smino’s debut. Still, there are moments when he turns morose, clenches his fist, and sings explicitly about his Blackness. On “Spinz,” a sludge of trad-jazz inflected trap R&B, Smino chants: “It was gruesome/What we grew from/But we grew some in the end/Ain’t enough to be where you from/Had to be mixed with some Indian.” On “SUMMER SALT” he kicks off a playful gymnastic floor routine of a flow with: “What do they care? I need enough for my kids’ kids’ kids” before making a “Mortal Kombat” “finish him” sex joke (his girl’s a Scorpio). It might say less about himself up front, but NOIR feels like the real Smino.

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