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Nelly released Country Grammar and set rap on a bold new course in a new direction. Not because of the repurposing of the childhood song "Down Down Baby"—JAY-Z already had a similar beat covered with his 1998 smash "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" that remade "It's a Hard Knock Life"" from the 1977 family classic Annie—but because of his bold embrace of melody. It was kooky, it was childish, it snapped. He became a star quickly, and throughout his career he constantly one-upped his ability to circumvent ever-changing rap tropes to excavate new sources of pop-rap success — see "Ride With Me," "Dilemma," "Over and Over." Because of his work, his residence of St. Louis, Missouri—(he was born in Austin, TX and moved to St. Louis as a teenager)—faced the world as a city stockpiling unique rap talents. Though many more-than-capable rappers have popped up from there like Chingy ("One Call Away"), Jibbs ("Chain Hang Low"), and Huey ("Pop Lock &Drop It"), none have been able to replicate that serendipitous lightning in a bottle that Nelly's one-of-a-kind music did so long ago.
Smino is the solution to St. Louis' problem. He's a loose cannon of influences, styles, and aesthetics, collected under a set of colorful hoodies and even brighter hoods. His music is fiercely different and unapologetic, yet familiar enough for you to realize that it's build off of similar templates and ideas. His new album NØIR brings these influences — jazz, funk, gospel and, of course, Nelly — together and catapults them to the moon. The word "noir" may be associated with darkness and a bleak state, but it's a clever little feint. This fever dream will leave you feeling as cheerful as it does delirious.
After sitting with the album and really turning it over, I've come up with five takeaways for this review.
Smino is more creative than your favorite rapper and it's not even close
While rappers sit and argue over who used whose flow first and who originated various fashion styles, the cream of the crop are warping every rap style under the sun to make their own and stretch the limits of their palettes. This is only one aspect of Smino's endlessly perplexing creativity. His words pour out like milk from his mouth into a champagne glass. They work in tandem with silky beats that reveal their shakiness over time, exposing different elements as Smino brandishes alternate universe variations of himself. There are traces of a number of rap's most popular contemporary flows here — from the straightforward Kung Ku Kenny vibes of "SPINZ," to the melodic-adjacent caterwauling of late career-Nelly on "Z4L." It's truly unpredictable when changing the track what'll be playing next — it's all the more mesmerizing because of it.
May the Jazz be with you
NØIR is the jazz-rap album to beat this year. Rap loves to frolic in the genre's conventions, but seldom does it ever capture more than the perceived gloom ; there's a joyous element that arises organically, the spirit of both the sullen and the happy, depending on who's playing it and for what reason. NØIR makes jazz fun again by exploring the ways that the voice can simulate instruments. There's also the careless flick of the guitar, the sexiness of gentle piano notes that kiss the ears, and the lack of trunk-rattling and obnoxious bass because rappers seemingly don't know how to exist without 808s anymore. Jazz is sexy , and NØIR is the first rap album in some time that could be the soundtrack to a casual encounter with roses in the bathtub. His debut album blkswn toyed with traditional rap styles with lighter jazz elements carefully sprinkled on top while focusing a little bit more on lyricism. While somewhat effective, it didn't truly work. When blending his vocals instead, everything falls into place a lot easier.
In homage to Nelly
Smino's first album tried to camouflage the influences with a tad bit more traditional rap but his second album embraces his proximity to Nelly. The refreshing melodic rap that Nelly created for nearly a decade trickled down to his younger fans, especially those who lived in the same town as him. Smino was one of them who's managed to incorporate elements of Nelly's sound into his own understanding of gospel, jazz, and funk. He manages to take the seeds that his forbearer planted and brings them to the next level organically. Where the two do differ is for their affinity for beats. Nelly preferred a diverse palette of often glitzy instrumentals from producers The Neptunes and frequent go-to guy Jay E. Smino, on the other hand, prefers dense instrumentals marinated in jazz and funk. Because of this, the similarities are a little hard to tell —but they do exist, though.
Dreezy is here, ladies and gentlemen
"Fenty Sex" is steeped in fresh bedroom sheen, before the shenanigans under the sheets and after. It's sexy, eclectic, and obtuse — three elements coursing through the album's winding tracklist of schizophrenic tunes. But what separates this track from the rest is the mesmerizing feature from Dreezy who proves her relevance with purpose and poise. Dreezy's drill-adjacent roots meant that she initially jumped hard and landed in a post-drill era not quite understanding of baroque bars. Over time, she smoothed it out with as many pop-centric offerings as her hard-hitting, antagonistic ones. Eat My Pussy EP, which came earlier this year, hinted at her refined techniques; now comes her tantalizing feature on "Fenty Sex" that dips into lust without overblowing it. Her quick, witty rhymes carry stinger after stinger about infatuation. Everything hits the right notes this time, making her have perhaps the strongest featured verse on the entire project.
2018 hasn't truly been a hip-hop overload—for quality rap, anyway
This year has been a contemporary rap fan's dream. From Drake (Scorpion to Travis Scott (Astroworld), Kanye West to JAY-Z, Cardi B to Nicki Minaj, rap's biggest names have released high-caliber, jam-packed albums that have left the press to froth at their mouths. Every Friday has been stuffed to the brim with long-awaited releases and ensuing controversies. Albums are more dispensable than ever — Kanye West put out ye in June and is already preparing another album to release later this month. Nothing sticks. It sounds good, but we're eagerly awaiting the next thing.
NØIR is instantly thicker than these previous releases. There's a polish to it that doesn't come from spending a month in Wyoming recording crops of songs. Every part of it feels meticulously crafted and hand-painted, from the whispering runs that sweep the listener into the spectacle to the thunderous crashing of boasts that showcase just how entertaining Smino can be. As animated and cartoonish as the album is altogether, combined with its powerful, cohesive sound, finding ways to compare it to much of what came before it in 2018 are hard to come by. Its closest spiritual cousin would be Vince Staples' FM!, a similarly messy project that explores every sound under the sun. NØIR is sultry, sexy, and extravagant with mesmerizing energy and enough hormones to give the monsters from Big Mouth a run for their money.
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