Smino Credit: Photo by Jack McKain

Chicago-based MC Smino did a lot of singing on his 2017 debut album, Blkswn, but on his imminent sophomore album, Noir, he seems much more interested in reminding his fans that he can rap. Keeping with tradition, Smino has used this album of smooth beats and swift bars to uplift other artists in his circle. It includes features from Dreezy, Valee, Ravyn Lenae, Bari, and Jay2—the last three are all members of the Zero Fatigue collective Smino cofounded, which is based in Chicago and his old hometown of Saint Louis.

The opening track, “Kovert,” sets the tone for Noir. As the track begins, Smino sings and raps in his reedy, high-pitched head voice over ethereal background vocals—but as the instrumental gets funkier, he starts rapping more and singing less.
The songs “Klink,” “Tequila Mockingbird,” and “Z4L” are fun, light, and similarly emphasize Smino’s rapping; the short and seductive “Merlot,” where he croons “merlot” (or something that rhymes with it) between stretches of almost free-form rap, is more reminiscent of Blkswn.

“MF Groove,” which features Lenae, recalls the ethereal vibe of “Kovert”; so does “Summer Salt,” where a funky, lo-fi beat and faint, wordless female vocals turn Smino’s gentle bars and soulful singing into a sweet R&B lullaby. On “We Got the Biscuits,” Smino returns to his head voice, rapping over hazy synth and layers of ethereal background vocals—the track’s celestial quality soon turns eerie, though, as his raps grow more aggressive and the background vocals crescendo till they nearly drown out everything else.

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Much of the rest of Noir takes after the second part of “Kovert,” sticking to relatively traditional hip-hop instrumentals. “Hoopti” uses a piano-sampling instrumental that speeds up partway through the track—at first Smino straight-up sings, indulging in jazzy embellishments on lush lines such as “You look like a classic, took your time, a crafted dish,” but as the beat accelerates he shifts to a smooth, swift flow. “Pizano,” a catchy tribute to the classic Chicago pizza chain, also lets Smino show off his furious flow over its dreamy beat—though he raps about Italian underwear as well as about Italian food. Noir is also full of Fenty references, including the sensual “Fenty Sex,” which features Dreezy. And on the hooky “Krushed Ice,” Smino collabs with Valee over a dark, bass-heavy instrumental.

Noir doesn’t differ from Blkswn only by spotlighting Smino’s rapping—it also presents him in a lighter, happier way. “Play this in your PA. Play this with the bass in your car. Play this loud,” says Smino in the record’s press release. “This album is a lot more ass shaking.”