credit: Graham Roper
Smino saw the painting late one night in August 2015. Hanging in a room in Chicago’s legendary Classick Studios, it depicts a gun being pointed at an alien. A black alien.
“I got real emotional and started talking about being black. I felt real alienated. Like that alien in that picture,” the 25-year-old rapper says. “Just ‘cause I look like this crazy-ass thing you gotta point this fucking gun?”
Feeling tormented yet inspired, he recorded a song entitled “blkjptr” (“Black Jupiter”), tearing viciously into producer Monte Booker’s soulful, crinkly track before crying out the chorus of Janet Jackson’s “I Get So Lonely.” Smino continued to pour his frustrations over four more of Booker’s sun-warmed beats, dubbed the EP BLKJPTR—and pitched his flag as one of the freshest new voices in music.
Now, with the impending release of his debut album, BLKSWN, the St. Louis native is reopening the gates for the Gateway to the West. His path toward that goal has been paved with both commercial success—he’s sold out headline shows in New York, Chicago , St. Louis, London and L.A under the “blkjuptr live” tour with his full band of midwest musicians.—and critical praise: Pitchfork lauded Smino’s “melodic vocal style … stretching and warping his vocals to form a new vocabulary” while Pigeons and Planes marveled at his “totally unforced confidence” and versatility. Grammy-nominated producer Stefan Ponce (Vic Mensa, Childish Gambino) even predicted the creative partnership of Smino and Booker would rival that of DJ Premier and Guru’s or Drake and Noah “40” Shebib’s.
Still, the onslaught of attention hasn’t dizzied Smino. He’s always known this was his destiny.
“I can’t really remember not being interested in music,” he says. “Literally from day zero. It was just … music.”
Reared in St. Louis, Smino was born with creativity coursing through his blood. His grandfather, father and mother were all musicians, and they encouraged his early curiosity. He began playing drums at the family’s church when he was a kid and it proved to be an influential training ground.
“In St. Louis churches they sang and they sound good. We grew up around showmanship and great stage presence. People really like being honest onstage,” he says.
He remembers having a big imagination and always writing, so after admiring an older cousin who was recording raps, he wrote a “ratchet love song” when he was 16. Posting it online and watching it ricochet around the city, he knew he’d discovered his career path. He left home to study at Columbia College Chicago in 2010, just as the city was beginning to morph into its current status as a rap boom town, and he met “all famous ass niggas that’s famous now.”
After dropping out of college and heading back to St. Louis for a few years to nurture its own now-bubbling scene, Smino returned to Chicago and found a home for his creativity at Classick Studios. He released S!ck S!ck S!ck, a three-track EP, via Soundcloud in fall 2015. Along with Booker, he created the next-level collective Zero Fatigue, which consists of core member/producer Monte Booker as well as other artists, singers and rappers intent on embracing melody and experimenting with sound at the same time. The city and its progressive rap landscape are a perfect fit for Smino and Zero Fatigue’s fearlessness.
“Everything is just so revolutionary in Chicago. You can’t help but come on good energy. It’s a cool place to be black. Black culture has turned this city into a phenomenon,” he says.
Since the release of BLKJPTR, Smino has become even more emboldened, playing with his voice and vocabulary in equal measure. Moreover, he’s cemented his self-worth. The “big brother” to BLKJPTR, Smino says BLKSWN is “the whole idea stretched out. How I found my wings” after happening upon the painting last summer and dealing with his subsequent feelings of alienation and otherness.
“Black swans are beautiful, too,” he says, his voice firm, confident. “I’m not gonna let that shit make me feel sad or sorry for myself. I can’t help how I am. I’m just gonna be more proud of it.”