A longtime associate of quite a few beloved indie rappers like JID, Saba and Noname, St. Louis artist Smino’s steady critical acclaim has been building him a wider audience as time goes on. Now on his third studio album, Luv 4 Rent has elevated his streaming numbers to a new level as he continues to display his blend of dexterous flows and neo-soul crooning. While a lot of what Smino does is certainly unique, and being the only person who truly sounds anything like this is commendable, there’s something about his high-pitched, nasal vocals that have never been able to truly click for me. If you’ve ever had a problem with his voice, this might not be the album for you as he pushes it to new and experimental heights. However, with a slew of great feature guests, some intriguing lyricism, and an impressively cohesive sound, this is certainly still worth checking out for any rap fan.
After an intro where Smino introduces a performance from his “little cousin” – who sounds a little like Frank Ocean with his pitched-up vocals over a spacey and washed-out backdrop – the track “No L’s” kicks off the proceedings with one of the project’s more straightforward rap bangers and a fun Monica sample. It makes a lot of sense that Smino and JID are heading out on a co-headlining tour – the way they approach their smooth-sounding flows, technical wizardry and tongue-in-cheek wordplay is pretty similar, and this track gives him a lot of space to show it off. “Beyon-séance” was inspired. In the second half, Smino switches to a more melodic flow as some tender guitar licks appear in the back, building up to his trademark heavily layered falsetto that doesn’t quite land for this listener. It leads into his use of a similar falsetto baby voice on the hook of “90 Proof,” which is more tolerable without the layering avalanche and demonstrates just how impressive his hyper-malleable rap voice is – the way he goes up and down the scales with ease while still delivering speedy flows is unmatched, and J. Cole comes through with a great, personality-filled verse stacked with hilarious punchlines. Doechii, however, shows why she got TDE’s attention and drops an even better feature onto “Pro Freak.” While Smino’s attempts at blending some clubby chants and a borderline New Orleans bounce sound with his jazzier influences is hit-or-miss, his verses measure up as well as the dense and technical material keeps coming. Just like “No L’s,” though, a beat switch takes things into more subdued territory before ending rather abruptly.
The hit-or-miss moments continue from there, though there are certainly a couple more hits. “Ole Ass Kendrick” – yes, referring to Lamar being played over Smino’s car radio – feels like the kind of chill trap and acoustics that someone like SZA would tackle on one of her songs, but Smino takes the opportunity to attach his zaniest approach to the track’s serenity. From ad-libbing trumpet fanfare to squeaky vocal inflections, an ironically self-serious hook of “she bad” and Smino running through a couple different names for himself – the best being Smi-lon Musk – it’s a short and fun diversion on the tracklist. “Louphoria” sounds like a freestyle in the studio, with a very echoey and reverb-heavy sound as Smino’s main hook doesn’t even sound like it lines up with the beat. Featured artist Cruza comes by to do the same kind of slow crooning, while the track itself provides a lot less content than its predecessor despite its longer length. “Blu Billy,” on the other hand, is Smino at the full height of his powers. With a truly beachy sound of Steve Lacy-esque guitars and some twinkling pianos in the back, this is the best of his speedy melodic flows as he drops a historical flex track of sorts, the title referring to a lesser-known 18th-century Black convict-turned-entrepreneur.
The album’s back half sees a little more experimentation bubble up to the surface, mostly in the form of the aspects that this particular listener can’t quite grasp the appeal of, though each track still comes equipped with a lot of what makes Smino so unique as well. “Matinee” comes through with some big bass notes, another very catchy hook and some soulful melodies in the verses, but the layering makes it all sound obnoxiously blown-out before another abrupt beat-switch to a harder-hitting chanted section that doesn’t mesh with the calmer vibe. “Modennaminute” is a lower-key cut as Smino drops his voice an octave, giving more opportunity to focus on his great wordplay. A feature verse from Lucky Daye matches the energy well, as Smino pushes his voice to some inflections on the chorus that are so passionate they threaten to disrupt the song structure. Another beat switch brings about some of the project’s most unlistenable voice pitching of all, but at least they don’t last nearly an entire song like they do on “Garden Lady.” “Defibrillator” is somewhat of an opposite to “Modennaminute,” this time with a great soulful chorus over a solid bassline, the verses this time sounding like JID’s scatterbrained approach without his superhuman ability to always make it work.
Smino saves a couple more heavy hitters for the end. The track “Settle” plays out like a jam session of all of the ideas we’ve heard, trying to combine them into one energy, as Ravyn Lenae pulls off his baby voice a lot better. “Pudgy” brings Lil Uzi Vert on board for a standout feature verse as Smino brings some of that bounce flavour back with some big bass hits – plus, you always have to appreciate a Mike Wazowski reference. “Curtains” is over six minutes with minimal instrumentation – just a couple looping synth notes – as Smino evidently has a lot to say about his journey and his development, with skits mixed in between. Finally, things end off nicely with a chipmunk soul track, Smino name-dropping his grandparents as he seeks out a similar kind of love on “Lee & Lovie.”
Smino has always proven himself to be a highly talented and enigmatic figure in the hip-hop landscape, someone who’s more about the artistic statements than trying to create something that everyone will react positively to. If he continues on this trajectory of popularity, who knows what might be coming in the future.
Favourite Tracks: Blu Billy, Lee & Lovie, No L’s, Pudgy, Pro Freak
Least Favourite Track: Garden Lady