Smino, Monte Booker release long-awaited debut LP 'blkswn'

Rising St. Louis rapper, Soulection producer flex a well-honed rapport


The much-anticipated “blkswn” does not disappoint. 

Only 20-years-old and striving to pursue a career in hip-hop production that began in the post-“Good Kid, m.a.a.d. City” era, Monte Booker has won the affection of hundreds of thousands of streetwear-clad teenagers with only a handful of official releases. Along with their cohorts of the Los Angeles-based R&B record label Soulection, Booker and Smino are babyfaced rap cats pursuing the refinement of what Soulection calls the “sound of tomorrow.” This sound is characterized by billowing keys as well as sleek, precise drum design and is influenced in equal measure by gospel, ‘90’s R&B, Dilla swing and trap.

If the wild success of the countless artists — from Drake and The Weeknd to 6LACK and Roy Woods — who have been imitating the Soulection sound is any indication, tomorrow may be just around the corner. Smino and Monte Booker’s debut LP “blkswn” is a full-length hip hop record straight from one of the primary sources of this new wave of soulful, modern production with singsong, R&B-inflected raps.

Though “blkswn” is a Smino project by name, it is Booker’s unique sound which defines and carries the record. Simultaneously totally leftfield and addictively poppy, Booker combines throbbing 808 kicks with idiosyncratic percussion. Where many modern rap producers often simply strive to make their drums slap as hard as possible, Booker applies a lighter touch. He envelopes the listener in warm keyboard patches and sumptuous low end while delicately sprinkling on the clicks, clacks, claps and hi hats.

Booker’s sound is extraordinary and highly addictive. Although the beats all seem to stem from the same template of sounds, each instrumental on the record is bursting with effervescence in its constant kaleidoscopic production shifts.

Booker’s approach leaves the perfect space for Smino’s flows to float in the mix, and their irresistible chemistry shines throughout the record. On “Flea Flicka,” Smino and fellow St. Louis native Bari flex all over Booker’s deep-pocketed dancehall groove — paying no mind to the constant revolving door of percussion as Booker pulls the kicks and snares in and out.

There’s not a ton of lyrical depth to be found from either artist, but plenty of verbal dexterity is on display. Each rapper’s flow and cadence match the track perfectly. However, zooming in on what they’re saying is often cringe-inducing. Smino spends about four bars of his verse on cheese puns — “Said I want the cheese, grilled up when I cheese / Yanno I gotta find the parmesan and long for the provolone / 'Cause when that feta on my fingertips I feel like I'm the goat.”

Yet, when Smino exercises more restraint elsewhere on the record, it pays dividends. Lead single “Anita” is an effortlessly funky summer jam with an irresistible hook and a host of great one-liners. On “Long Run,” he delves a bit deeper into his political psyche while lamenting the lack of attention paid by the media to the violence in his hometown and venting his frustration with white privilege.

Still, “blkswn” is certainly no “Summertime ‘06” or “To Pimp A Butterfly.” It’s chiefly a summer record — for kickbacks, city park picnics, chilling at the beach, riding shotgun in a friend’s car with the windows down or running to the corner store for large sodas.

At times, the record can feel a bit spastic with Smino’s hurried cadences and rapid-fire wordplay and Booker’s constant production switching and reckless cycling instrumentation. But their unencumbered style is admirable — Smino and Booker are both insanely good at what they do, and they’re not afraid to stretch out and flex their precise talents. Their effortless talent is undeniably charming even at its corniest, and “blkswn” is — all things considered — a thoroughly fun, exciting record from top to bottom.

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