Chicago is the birthplace of an absolutely staggering number of top-tier hip hop artists. From elder statesmen like Twista, Kanye West and Common, to the early 2010s Southside drill scene that gave rise to enfant terrible Chief Keef and his peers, along with a wide-ranging constellation of talented outliers like Open Mike Eagle, Mick Jenkins, and Joey Purp, the windy city has long been an incubator for some of the most successful and forward-thinking rap music.
Performing at l’Astral this past week was Smino, part of loose crop of emerging Chicago artists (including Noname and Saba, among others) that are flipping drill’s violent nihilism on its head, creating warm, worldly yet optimistic hip hop that refashions bits of neo-soul, funk and r&b into some of the most exciting music happening today.
An opening set from Atlanta duo EARTHGANG managed to get the audience’s energy level uncommonly high for a rainy Tuesday night. Reminiscent of their legendary ATL forebears Outkast, EARTHGANG delivered an ecstatic, funky performance that was buoyed by the dynamic interplay of the group’s two contrasting MCs. Johnny Venus, much like 3 Stacks before him, is the eccentric showman, all swagger and howled bluesy crooning, whereas Doctur Dot, as implied by his moniker, is a surgically precise rhyme spitter.
The group performed a number of songs from their as-yet unreleased new album Mirrorland, as well as from their trilogy of 2018 EPs Rags, Robots and Royalty. At multiple points during their set, the duo called upon the crowd for participation. Early on, they led the audience in chanting the hook to YG’s now immortal “Fuck Donald Trump”, which seamlessly bled into “Missed Calls” from their 2015 LP Strays With Rabies. At one point, they picked out a number of concertgoers to come on stage and pitted them against each other in an impromptu, and genuinely impressive dance battle over their track “So Many Feelings.” They closed out their set “Proud of U,” their 2019 collaboration with Young Thug; its chorus, echoing the titular phrase, became an earnest benediction for the rest of the evening, an expression of positivity emblematic of EARTHGANG’s worldview.
After a short break, Smino walked onto a stage decorated like a lived-in auto shop, tire stacks lining the DJ booth, a display of flashy rims dressing up the back wall, and a facsimile of a battered vending machine front and center, its backlit display advertising a fictional soft drink named Smino’s Hoopti. Hoopti is a slang term for a decrepit car – think beater or jalopy – which is somewhat ironic considering Smino and his live-band were nothing if not a well-oiled machine. Backed-up by a female vocalist, a pair of DJs, a keyboard player, a bassist and a drummer, Smino presented a fully realized, organic version of the electronic-leaning arrangements found on his records.
Early on, the band leaned hard into “Tequila Mockingbird’s” dub-tinged, Carribean bounce, the live rhythm section playing off each other wonderfully, seemingly in a slow-motion game of chicken to see who could play farther behind the beat. Elsewhere, “Krushed Ice” became a titanic staccato bass stomp, the live drums adding layers of heavy-metal aggression the 808-heavy recorded version could only hint at. Obviously, this song incited a massive mosh pit.
However, the fleshed out arrangements weren’t always in favour of the material. At times, the playing gave in to prog-rock wankery, like on “Coupe ‘Se Yern” where endless bass vamps only held back the song’s immediacy. This was obviously felt by the audience too, who at times seemed confused as to how to dance to the shifting, twisty arrangements the band was putting forward.
Smino’s vocal performance was a consistent highlight of the set, however. An absolute chameleon of a vocalist, he ably shifted between mumbled rap verses, smooth sung melodies, and yelped onomatopoeias, never missing a beat and maintaining a clarity of tone that is honestly never quite on display in his recorded material. There, his voice is layered into a diffuse, sensual alloy that eschews clarity in favour of texture. Live, it’s impressive to discover a malleable voice stripped of artifice and support, barring the impressive harmonies provided by the band’s back- up vocalist.
Smino closed his set with “Klink,” arguably the most accessible party song on his latest album Noir. Led by a dry, pizzicato guitar sample, the song is a phenomenal showcase for Smino’s voice. Desperate r&b howling on the verses, building to a smooth, sing-songy pre-chorus that blows up into literal cartoon sound effects on the refrain. A perfect send-off to a great night of hip hop, that left me excited for whatever Smino does next.
Review – Jean-Michel Lacombe