The honey-tongued St. Louis rapper talks about his creative process, sticking to his roots, and a particularly memorable DREAMVILLE recording session.
Shirt THE INCOPORATED, trousers KARL KANI, shoes NIKE, glasses GUCCI
Taken from the Winter issue of Wonderland. Order your copy of the issue now.
“Pardon?” I ask Smino, the St. Louis rapper whose smooth but heavily-accented drawl I am struggling to decipher thanks to the transatlantic phone connection. “Ah, I’m sorry – I’m going to try and enunciate better,” he laughs, before asking where I’m from. “London,” I reply, this doing nothing to assuage his fears that I won’t understand his accent. I will later get to hear his own attempt at a London one, also hard to understand, though this time more thanks to my laughter obscuring anything he says than any comprehension issues. Lyricism, after all, is what Smino has become known for, his fiery, incessant brand of wordplay speaking to thousands, propelling him to the forefront of the scene.
Smino first started gaining real recognition with his 2017 debut album blkswn, featuring artists like Ravyn Lenae and Noname. The album focused on the black experience in America, its title coming from the perceived notion that black swans are more aggressive than their white counterparts. In 2018 we were treated to his sophomore album, NØIR, possessing a lighter subject matter and affording the listener episodic insights into the rapper’s life. Now, with the world eagerly anticipating his third album, Smino has just released “Trina”, a psychedelic single, the video for which features an underwater ‘player’s ball’. He tells me he originally wanted this to be an aquatic strip club, affirming that most of the ideas behind his music videos are his own. This is hardly surprising, the rapper is also a proficient writer, producer, singer, and drummer. “I’m hella involved in everything,” he says proudly. “I’m a particular-ass dude.”
As we carry on chatting, I’m afforded a glimpse into how surreal the life of a successful rapper can be. I ask about Dreamville Camp, an initiative started by J. Cole — the label’s self-proclaimed “head honcho” and founder — in January this year. Designed to get all of his favourite rappers under one roof for potential collaborations, the album that ensued — Revenge of the Dreamers III — was one of the year’s finest, and Smino gives me an insight into the recording process. He recounts how he was chilling, making a song one day, when Buddy, a Compton-based rapper (or “a ratchet ass Cali dude,” as Smino calls him), came in and offered everyone mushrooms. Everyone proceeded to start rapping “mad goofy,” while J. Cole apparently just sat vibing on the floor. “I also smoked a blunt with Chris Bosh,” he adds, the NBA star’s involvement adding another layer of surrealness to the story.
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Despite these memorable moments, much of what Smino tells me is remarkably relatable, like his decision to keep a journal throughout his Asia tour. “I had a bunch of incomplete thoughts, ‘cause I’m hella scatter-brained, and I needed to put some routine to my fucking mind,” he explains. “But doing it was kind of creeping me out, because I’m like, ‘damn, I’m thinking about this shit?!” His imagination is certainly enviable. After publicly describing NØIR as “my life as a black-ass movie”, I ask him what movie he’d like to star in. His answer is immediate — “Independence Day” — though he has some ideas on how to improve on the 1995 action classic. First off, his spaceship would be called “The Lovercraft”, the rapper excitedly adding: “We’d just love all the aliens, and fuck all around space.” Done his way, he assures me, “we would have had iPhones in the 90s”.
We come back down to earth to talk about how women are transforming the rap scene. He reminds me that blkswn featured many female artists, and states that part of the reason he decided to do this, aside from simply having a lot of talented female friends, is that “n****s wanna hear women talk. N****s been rapping forever, it’s time for some different shit.” He explains how he foresaw the explosion of women on the scene, adding: “I’m so happy; I’m not saying I made it happen, I just seen this shit coming. What else was gonna happen? How many more dudes can there be? I love it though — I looove that shit.”
I ask him whether this more inclusive scene will continue to develop, and he talks about how people in the industry seem to be increasingly encouraging each other to be real to themselves. This leads us to discuss something that both he and his producer Monte have previously said: that losing their creativity is their biggest fear. Smino explains that the origin of this fear is actually based on moving too far away from their roots. “It’s a matter of — if shit be too good — you’re too far into your success. It makes it harder to have some shit to relate to, or have shit other people relate to, because you’re just not there anymore. That’s why I try and stay real.”
He explains that this has been possible despite his move to LA, as his decision not to live near a lot of other artists awards him breathing space and allows him to be close to the airport should the urge to escape possess him. Indeed, even this seems too close to the hub for the rapper, who tells me of his plans to relocate to West or South Africa in the near future. “Ah, shit – I ain’t even told my mamma that shit yet – she gonna read this and be like, ‘n**** what?!’” he laughs.
Despite the dream of moving away from America, Smino remains very much dedicated to St. Louis, and is due to start a financial literacy programme for inner-city kids there soon after this interview. He explains that “a lot of people where I’m from don’t really get the chance to do extremely well… [They] don’t really know where to look, nor do they see the people who do it.” To remedy this, Smino aims to expose these kids to a lot of his inspirational friends, though the rapper need not look too far, he himself definitely a candidate for a successful role model. A fully-fledged businessman aside from his musical career, he now makes more money from clothes than he does rapping. “I’m trying to balance it out,” he muses, “I feel like Rihanna or some shit.”
This equilibrium may be restored with the release of his new album, which Smino assures me is nearly done. I ask for some hints and he just laughs, saying “I can’t bro! I like to let my music speak, I don’t want nobody expecting shit.” What he does promise me, however, is that “it’s gonna be fire. Real timeless music.”
This last statement doesn’t need repeating, and it’s got nothing to do with getting used to his accent. Having listened to Smino’s music, and been treated to his unique brand of lyricism over the phone, it’s not a difficult sentiment to understand, and an even easier one to believe
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