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Smino’s ‘Luv 4 Rent’ and the soul of modern hip-hop

St. Louis rapper and neo-soul artist Smino’s third studio album, “Luv 4 Rent,” presents some of the smoothest and most entertaining music of the entire year. While this has been the case for most of the music he’s released, Smino’s latest effort builds beautifully on his previous work. In “Luv 4 Rent,” he improves both his production and vocal compositions while broadening his horizons in terms of influence and song structure. 

Smino’s first two records, “blkswn” and “NOIR,” released in 2017 and 2018 respectively, are two of the most melodic and unique-sounding pieces of hip-hop I’ve heard in the last decade. His soft yet distinct voice floats across both the hard-hitting and romantic production. While “blkswn” opted for a slower and relatively soul-centric record and “NOIR” was more influenced by modern hip-hop, “Luv 4 Rent” is Smino at his most diverse. 

The two core players on “Luv 4 Rent” are Smino himself (obviously) and Monte Booker, a labelmate on Smino’s own “Zero Fatigue” and producer/co-producer on 10 of the 15 tracks on the album. Booker’s production meshes so well with Smino’s style by formatting the song around the artist as opposed to the other way around. It is clear in “Luv 4 Rent” how well these two artists know each other and their aspirations for the music just by listening to the songs. Even though the album bounces around between song structures, lengths and styles, Booker’s production provides a through line by keeping the record’s crisp and refreshing quality consistent.    

“Luv 4 Rent” thematically focuses primarily on love as an object. Whether it’s a love of other people, of yourself, of music or of money, the album is all about love. While I’ve had a difficult time actually paying attention to the lyrics on some of Smino’s music because of how crazy his vocal compositions are, he takes a lot more time to say what he wants to say in this album. In this way, “Luv 4 Rent” is much more patient than his other work and presents a final product that allows itself to breathe. However, a number of fantastic “radio hits” still pop up throughout the album, including “90 Proof” with J. Cole, “Pro Freak” with Doechii and Fatman Scoop and “Pudgy” with Lil Uzi Vert. These are also some of the most high-profile features Smino has had on any of his music. With his labelmates and other up-and-coming artists rounding out the album, “Luv 4 Rent” feels almost like a family-produced project. While Smino is the star of the show, he continues to return the love for his friends and those who have supported him. 

Overall, this album is a continuation of the soulful and out-of-this-world vocals Smino is known for. Yet his sound has risen to new heights: at times chill, relaxed and soulful production and at others, beats sound like they could turn a subwoofer into a bomb. The diversity of sound and everything in between holistically represents Smino as an artist. Despite “Luv 4 Rent” not being a totally perfect album, it shows plenty of promise, and anyone who enjoys rap or soul-adjacent music should give it a listen.

Artist: Smino

Album: Luv 4 Rent

Label: Motown

Favorite tracks: “Curtains,” “Pro Freak (with Doechii & Fatman Scoop),” “Pudgy (with Lil Uzi Vert)” 

If you like: Chance the Rapper, EARTHGANG, Saba, Young Thug

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

You can contact Brendan Nolte a bnolte2@nd.edu.

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J.I.D’s triumph over circumstance: ‘The Forever Story’

Since signing to J. Cole’s Dreamville Records in early 2017, Atlanta rapper J.I.D (real name Destin Choice Route) has built a name for himself not through the absurd style, vapid lyricism and obscene amounts of bass that defined the “Soundcloud rap” era in which he came up, but through a commitment to two things too often lost in modern hip-hop: honesty and craft. The rapper whose stage name originates from his grandma’s description of him as “jittery” has never lost that same restless swagger from when he was young, and J.I.D’s latest album “The Forever Story” puts on display his most vulnerable, cohesive and thoughtful work to date without losing sight of the hard-hitting beats and elaborate flows that put him on the map.

The opening track “Galaxy” almost directly reflects “Doo Wop,” the intro track to J.I.D’s first album, “The Never Story.” This immediately introduces one of the key themes of the album, which is the juxtaposition of where the rapper sees himself now — sitting atop or near the top of the metaphorical mountain that is the rap game — versus where he was when he first signed to Dreamville or even first started making music. While “The Never Story” served as a meditation on J.I.D’s life growing up in Atlanta and how the mindset of his youth still influences him in the present, “The Forever Story” represents a feeling of triumph over circumstance and an emphasis on who he is and has become.

The first five tracks after the intro are the “hits” of the album, including the two singles “Dance Now” and “Surround Sound,” with the latter featuring an expertly crafted Aretha Franklin sample not at all out-of-line with the themes of the album. “The Forever Story” is a celebration of what made J.I.D the man and artist he is today, and he uses both samples and features expertly to tie that together. Sampling the “queen of soul” along with somber reflection and singing on tracks like “Sistanem” and “Can’t Make U Change (ft. Ari Lennox)” demonstrate how his parents’ music has pervaded J.I.D’s own. Cutting in The Last Poets – a group largely responsible for the formation of hip-hop as a genre — to the beginning of “Raydar” and features from Lil Wayne and Yasiin Bey exemplify the appreciation J.I.D has for the origins of both his style and the genre as a whole.

The emotional core of “The Forever Story,” however, comes from the three-track run of “Kody Blu 31,” “Bruddanem” and “Sistanem.” “Bruddanem” and “Sistanem” delve into J.I.D’s sense of kinship and loyalty toward his brothers and sister, and the comparison of these feelings shows how uniquely important these different kinds of relationships are while still expressing the lessons his family has taught him. The cornerstone (or “feature presentation” as it’s described at the beginning of the track) of the record is “Kody Blu 31,” a memorial of sorts to J.I.D’s friend Kody who died when he was young. The chorus on this track melodically advises the listener to “swang on” in what seems to represent the central message of the album — a message which resonates deeply as a reflection on grief and what it means to keep living.

This record is so lyrically dense that there is no way anyone could explore all of the phenomenal work in both writing and delivery in one review. While there is an impressive verse or two on every song, the standout tracks in terms of lyrics were “Crack Sandwich,” an exploration of the chaotic yet tight relationship between J.I.D, his six siblings and his parents, and “2007,” the outro to the album which dropped as a music video a week prior and does not appear on Spotify due to clearance issues. It illustrates in both verse and voice memos the story of J.I.D’s life from 2007, when J. Cole dropped his first mixtape “The Come Up,” to 2017, when J.I.D signed to Dreamville Records and dropped his first album.

“The Forever Story” easily constitutes J.I.D’s best and most complete body of work to date and safely establishes him as a modern great alongside the likes of Kendrick Lamar and his mentor, J. Cole.

Artist: J.I.D

Album: “The Forever Story”

Label: Dreamville Records

Favorite Songs: “Crack Sandwich,” “Can’t Punk Me (feat. EARTHGANG)” and “2007”

If you like: Kendrick Lamar, EARTHGANG, Smino, Danny Brown

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5

Brendan Nolte

Contact Brendan at bnolte2@nd.edu