HNDRXX, Process, ctrl, Freudian, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, and of course, DAMN. It may have been a relatively subpar year in many respects, but music, as it always does, prevailed. In particular, hip-hop and R&B saw explosive growth and paramount success during the year. Some artists like Daniel Caesar and DVSN proved that the future of R&B might be especially bright. Other artists like Migos and Kendrick Lamar RSVP’d their table settings for the luncheon of music royalty. Stormzy furthered the cause for the grime movement, SZA released one of the strongest debuts in memory, and Gucci Mane taught us that just because an old dog can’t learn new tricks doesn’t mean that the new tricks might just be old ones after all.
Across the spectrum, music grew for the better and for the, well… stranger? If 2017 left us with anything, it’s the knowledge that music is art and art is weird. But at the end of the day, there’s no disputing art’s legitimacy unless you want to upset a lot of people and make some famous in the process. The previously denoted “Soundcloud rappers” are no longer on the backburner. In fact, their influence, which has always been strong but ignored, is now obvious and unquestioned. In many ways, hip-hop has outgrown itself. With the immense range of styling, influence, and experimental tangents that have snowballed lately, it’s becoming impossible to describe it as a single genre.
And the same can be said for Rhythm and Blues. Similar to hip-hop, R&B has seen a split that has resulted in one side returning towards its roots while the other extends towards hip-hop and electronic inspired experimentation. A plethora of phenomenal vocalists and producers occupy both movements, but their sounds are entirely different.
Perhaps the most interesting 2017 development across hip-hop and R&B circles is the immense importance placed on genre transcendence and subsequently an explosion of artists who excel in multiple lanes. When Drake first appeared on the scene and displayed his then rare ability as a quality R&B vocalist and a talented rapper, a match was struck and an incalculable amount of artists have since dwelt in the firestorm to perfect both ends of their talent spectrums.
Though hip-hop and R&B have always subsisted in close, often shared confines, traditionally the combination has existed in the realm of collaboration, but in 2017 there are more artists than ever that blur the lines between the two genres. Predominant R&B singers like The Weeknd and Bryson Tiller often flex their bars and are clearly cross-inspired by both genres. Other artists like PARTYNEXTDOOR and K. Forest are posters for the recently explosive TrapHall genre of reggae-inspired hip-hop and R&B blending. Others still like Rihanna, Anderson .Paak, and DRAM, permanently tread in the grey area between the two. Even Future got in on the action with his dual-release albums FUTURE and HNDRXX, which display not just the far ends of his talent, but also the immense reaches of the blurred hip-hop/R&B mega-genre. Needless to say, music has ushered in a new era. And in this new era it’s no longer simply a bonus to be varied and transcendent, it’s practically a pre-requisite.
If in fact it is now fully expected and required of hip-hop and R&B artists to prove their wide-ranging talents, no album was more representative of 2017 than Smino’s blkswn. An incomprehensibly versatile project from an indescribably talented artist, blkswn is, to put it in three words, a perfect album. And it gets there through its imperfection, its honesty, its quality, and its blend of hip-hop and R&B.
If blkswn is the first you heard of Smino, you’re not alone. Though making waves for a few years, the St. Louis-born artist hadn’t properly stepped into the limelight until the album’s March 14th release. Born into a musical family and dedicating his life to his craft, it was a matter of time and hard work that brought Smino to where he is today: an emerging artist with a bold, creative, and unique take on his own sound.
Smino himself describes that sound as future funk and soulful hip-hop, and it’s difficult to put to words a more apt description. As a rapper, Smino brings a style completely unheard and entirely his own. Choppy, fiery, and lyrically poetic, his flow quickly jumps from quick and dedicated to laid-back and relaxed. He often makes such drastic yet somehow imperceptible leaps mid-song, that it's difficult to define Smino as a rapper or as a vocalist. He's both. When he raps, he does it with such silky delivery that he might as well be singing, and when he sings, he does it with such unique timing and abrupt changes of pace to the point that he's essentially dropping bars.
It's not as if he half-asses either method. It's uncommon today, and honestly never has been common, to find an artist with the impressive and effortless delivery that is clearly so natural to Smino. Upon first listen, his off-beat, constantly adjusting, jazzy timing is what stands out most. Upon further inspection, what begins to become apparent are the deep messages and clean storytelling that are native to his every verse. He has a knack to take his audience on a journey. blkswn is one of those elusive projects that can be listened to all the way through as a cohesive, intriguing story, and also be picked apart to listen to independent songs which each tell a tale of their own. Aside from Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, it’s difficult to bring to mind an example of another lyricist who conveys storyline as well as Smino.
And what a storyline blkswn conveys. Family, friends, failure, success, drugs, alcohol, love, loss, Netflix & Dusse. They’re all themes explored throughout an album that in its wholesome form is simply a story of life told by a very humble, interesting, and creative genius. It’s also an 18-song marathon exposing the listener to more than an hour's worth of versatile jams. The album’s range is so vast that it seems like it was made by a collection of talented artists – not just one. And that's because in many ways, it was. blkswn is certainly a Smino album and an incredible glimpse into his talent, but the range of features on the project also makes it the most accurate of windows with which to see into the state of hip-hip and R&B in 2017. The long and illustrious list of features includes Ravyn Lenae, Bari, Noname, Monte Booker, Sango, J. Bird, theMIND, Jay2, Akenya, Via Rosa, Phoelix, THEMpeople, and Drea Smith – Smino’s cousin and one of his idols. Most of the artists may not be household names, but then again neither is Smino. But one listen to blkswn’s entirety will have you wondering just how long until everyone included are world-renowned.
Of all the albums that 2017 blessed us with, why crown one created by a bunch of unknowns, misfits, and underground artists? It’s a fair question with two easy answers. One: As the musical spectrum has become further saturated with a never-ending stream of new artists, experimentation, and the death of traditional genre, it’s an important time to take into account every possible project when defining and awarding greatness. And Two: These bunch of misfits, with Smino at the helm, changed the damn game and blew the competition out of the water with the most creative, versatile, and influential album of the year.