Four Years Later, the Significance of Smino’s ‘blkswn’ is Still Coming into Focus
Four years. It’s an inherently long time for anything in art to remain paramount and keystone, unless of course, that thing happens to be a classic. Visual art often comes and goes from the limelight, but remains in the fine art circuit in perpetuity if it merits so; as for movies, a more streamlined new-to-old factory floor rolls out, though we all return to our favorites through time; and music… well, music is more prolific than just about anything else, save for the blogs that write about music. In a musical realm like hip-hop especially, the rate of creation helps ensure that new music is almost always new — that rappers and producers from studios to smartphones at any corner of the world can release something new, experimental, and occasionally even influential at any moment. It happens often. But what doesn’t happen often is stumbling across something that — at four years old, ancient for hip-hop’s sake — feels eternally new, bold, and ultimately necessary to the construction of hip-hop creativity for the foreseeable future. But, for anyone stumbling across Smino’s blkswn for the first time, a sense of eternal youthfulness in its sound, blurred with its creator’s otherworldly aesthetic, asks that it remain paramount and keystone, not just to modern hip-hop, but to all of music in a largely post-genre scene denouncing stylistic boxes.
Smino released blkswn on March 14, 2017. His sophomore collection behind 2016’s blkjuptr, and his debut album, the St. Louis rapper and vocalist had been carving out his unendingly individualistic sound for years. We all know it now — or at least we should — but the wavy wordplay, rap-sung transcendentalism, raw vocals, and rawer subject matter (even if it takes a few listens to really know what Smino is saying above and below the surface of the his ocean-sized, largely self-invented vocabulary) was on its way to being something truly special and game-changing. When blkswn rolled around, Smino had refined his sound, and in the process, redefined what hip-hop could be. It blew everyone’s mind.
At an hour-plus, blkswn is a marathon. But, to properly outline all the range that Smino’s sound encompasses, an hour-plus took precision production to pull off. For anyone who has listened all the way through — and any hip-hop fan should make it at least a monthly practice — we know how seamlessly it plays. Classic by its identity as an album that just also fluidly flows from beginning to end, blkswn is a nod to the idea that albums can still be long — an unpopular opinion in the fast-fashion world of SoundCloud rappers today. Musically, it’s more than a nod in any one direction.
Rather a thesis, blkswn is a dissection of hip-hop itself, and a reconstruction of its pieces towards the most creatively bold of futures. There isn’t a track of the 18 that doesn’t absolutely bop. There isn’t a track from blkswn that doesn’t appeal to the storied collaboration between hip-hop and R&B, showcasing Smino as the most stylistically transcendent modern artist of this world — or of the other he’s undoubtedly from. There isn’t a verse throughout that doesn’t make other rappers teem with jealousy on just how easy it is for Smino to sound oh, so very different. And even amongst the difference, he pieces together flow and wordplay more dynamic, thoughtful, and hard-hitting than anyone else. And he does it all while telling a story — or many stories pulled from his St. Louis upbringing, his time in Chicago, and the comings across of women, liquor, amphetamines, family, love, lust, and loss along the way. It’s a coming of age tale — relatable in thematic discourse to so many other young Black men on this planet; a coming of age tale — brimming with sonic texture and raw experimentalism pulled from his journey from blkjuptr to an Earth unworthy of his blkswn.
But the Earth — or at least this world’s hip-hop spectrum — have begun to take notice. In the four years since its release, blkswn remains a paramount exploration of the possibilities when an artist willing and able to take the risks, takes them so fervently. Nothing more harmoniously experimental and successful has come from any artist since (or maybe even before). Instead, Smino is now everywhere. Our understatedly 2019 Artist of the Year, he featured on more than a dozen of 2019’s most important singles and collections, without even dropping a collection of his own. If you can’t replicate the undying individuality in his experimental sound, why not recruit Smino instead, and give him a broader platform with which to provoke creative Renaissance? Amongst others, Doja Cat, Dreamville, SiR, Chance the Rapper, Saba, Noname, Leven Kali, Tobi Lou, Sango, Pivot Gang, Femdot, and Hollywood at large — check out Judas and the Black Messiah — have utilized his generational ubiquity to spice up their own craft.
And as for his own craft? Not since 2018’s NOIR — the follow-up album to blkswn — has Smino released a project longer than a holiday 2-pack. And even though High 4 Da Highladays shook the ornaments to the floor, a new album from Smino — another project brimming with the idealistic inadherence to established sound or texture — could again reignite a redefinition of hip-hop, of music at large.
But for now, blkswn tolls on — a timeless token of experimentalism, and the necessary force of creative genius that is Smino.
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