Saint-Louis/Chicago. Smino. Volume 2. After Blkswn, a second album from the singer-rapper with the singular touch was highly anticipated. This is Noir.
“Noir, what a beautiful name. Black, statuesque, you know? Strong, sweet, that’s what I think when I think of Noir. That’s what I think when I think about you … ”
The very first words you hear on Noir, the new album from Smino, aren’t actually spoken by the St. Louis-raised rapper-slash-singer. Instead, they’re recited in a hushed, sultry whisper by his girlfriend, the fellow MC Jean Deaux. This might surprise you: The recent buzz about Smino has focussed on the innovative way he recites words and rhymes, pliably shifting from melodic rapping to falsetto-style singing and further blurring the boundaries between modern rap and R&B.
Despite graciously handing over introductory duties to his betrothed, Noir very quickly turns into a showcase for Smino’s intoxicating vocals. The album’s first song, “KOVERT,” begins with Smino’s muted scatting layered against a soft and gentle bed of synths. Then he starts to rap melodically, the tone of words ascending and descending as if he’s reciting arpeggios: “I ain’t seen my mama in a minute/On my heart just like a pendant/I hate thinking ’bout that shit/It’s like a domino.” As Smino hits the last word, it’s like his syllables turn to droplets of water and drip down, glistening onto the track. It’s an addictive and magical vocal effect, and it sets the creative tone for the most impressive parts of an 18 track album that’s enjoying its moment in the spotlight after the culmination of a long grind.
Back in 2012, Smino announced his solo ambitions with the Smeezy Dot Com mixtape. While readying his next series of mixtape and EP projects, Smino became a key member in Zero Fatigue, a Chicago-based clique of artists that also includes his long time production spar, Monte Booker. A guest turn on Noname’s Telefone album, on the track “Shadow Man,” helped build up Smino’s profile, before he dropped his debut album, Blkswn, in 2017, and snagged supporting slots on tours by SZA and T-Pain. Now Noir is being suggested as Smino’s gateway into the mainstream.
When everything clicks, Noir presents a genuine vocal talent. The way Smino transforms and warps his voice becomes the album’s calling card — or his unique selling point. On “KLINK,” he raps in the fashion of a hoarse rooster desperately spitting out words in between bouts of being strangled. The idea sounds cartoonish — or even corny — but the way Smino executes the vocal effect gives the track its energy and identity, especially when bounced off a Monte Booker beat hooked around hand claps and the high octane strumming of a mandolin.
Beyond the shapeshifting abilities of Smino’s voice, the most memorable moments on Noir stick to a traditional R&B/rap crossover template. On “HOOPTI,” Smino’s honeyed voice segues between singing and rapping as he puts his own twist on the age old subject matter of hollering at a girl: “She ain’t bougie, she ain’t choosy, fuck on the floor mat/Chicken strips and scary movies, romance.” “L.M.F.” features a chorus that references Lion King characters, and Smino trills his way through it like he’s reciting a child’s nursery rhyme: It’s playful, it’s, it’s catchy, and it works. But unfortunately, for every standout track on Noir, there’s another that meanders as background mood music: “LOW DOWN DERRTY BLUES” is bedded by Monte Booker’s deep aquatic bass lines but Smino treads water with his vocals; “SUMMER SALT” opens in a warm haze of synths and lolling kick drums but fails to build up any steam, barely simmering along and ultimately fading out as a forgettable album cut.
In a hip-hop world where artists are smartly beginning to put the drawn out excesses of the mixtape era behind them in favor of shorter but more cohesive albums — whether mainstream figures like Kanye West and Vince Staples or experimental underground architects — the sheer length of Noir ends up dulling the listening experience. Stronger song writing and snappier hooks are needed to let the essence of Smino sparkle. Parts of Noir undoubtedly herald the arrival of a distinct new rap and R&B voice — but large parts of it also sound like an upcoming artist still figuring out the best way to present his voice to the world.