Reflection is inherently painful, no matter how much we’d rather that it wasn’t. Between what’s been lost, violating your own sense of self, and, sometimes, acknowledging how scarcely you’ve gained, the process of recounting past events never fails to cause phantom pain in old wounds. While it takes courage to dust off old situations in order to reassess them, there are lessons to be extracted from the agony.
Unveiled four, long years on from 2018’s Noir, it’s evident that this process of retracing the steps of his life, both the physical & mental pitfalls, has been at the forefront of Smino’s mind during the inception of Luv 4 Rent. Leading with fallibility and human error as opposed to the tried-and-tested air of righteousness that has been so prevalent in hip-hop for decades, the St. Louis native exposes his own hang-ups in the hopes that they can liberate others.
“One big thing I like about my fans is they always tell me that I make them want to be themselves,” Smino informed Complex prior to the record’s release. “That’s the best type of inspiration I think I can leave. I want to make n****s want to look inward instead of outward to other shit.”
He expounded on this concept across his ambitious and often revelatory project. Luv 4 Rent isn’t just a welcome return from one of contemporary hip-hop’s most fearlessly individualistic presences but it stands tall as the finest entry in Smino’s discography to date. Opening in plaintive, Frank Ocean-indebted fashion on “4rm Da Source,” Smino sets the tone for a record that utilizes the full spectrum of sounds and tools in his arsenal.
From the outset of “No L’s,” Smino taps into his extraordinary vocal range and towering swagger. He effortlessly glides over a trap-oriented sample of Monica’s “Knock Knock” that Tyler, The Creator, and A$AP Rocky previously brought the song back to the public consciousness on “Potato Salad.” The classic R&B record receives yet another gust of renewing air, courtesy of TDE producer Kal Banx, who contorts one of Ye’s most notable, pre-College Dropout beats into new, contemporary shapes. Smino firmly reminds the listener that he’s a compelling orator, imbued with confidence in his destiny. “Don’t got what you see, I’m connected like seam/ Card that they dealt made a king out of him,” he declares. On top of setting out his stall through the chameleonic allure of his vocals and assortment of flows, “No L’s” is also one of many occasions in which he enlists beat-switches and tonal shifts – including the previously teased “Matinee”-- in an intrinsically original form.
Charged with an array of guests that feel less restrained than previous works, one of the record’s standout features soon emerges with purpose with the J. Cole-aided “90 Proof.” The track – cresting on a wave of thoughtful, guitar-inflected instrumentation from the dream team of Groove & Monte Booker – is so good that Smino found himself in a quandary over whether to give it to J Cole for his album or keep it for himself. “90 Proof” nestles so beautifully onto the rest of the records. Besides, it’s clear that Cole harbored no hard feelings, coming through with a stunning verse in which he offhandedly dispenses life lessons about how to handle wealth and fame. “No chain or no Rollie, I move around doley, untouched/ Not 'cause I'm hard, because I got God/ I heard that you blowin' up fast, but I think it's better to slowly erupt,” he spits.
Although Smino and the Zero Fatigue crew have helped to reinvent the sound of Chicago to provide a viable alternative to drill, the St. Louis-born artist is no less inspired by the South’s musical heritage. As such, he uses it as a tapestry to explore both modern life and the trials of the past. On the party anthem “Pro Freak” with Fatman Scoop and Doechii, Smino infuses the intensity of bass music with the instrumental richness that lingers over much of the project. A longtime collaborator of Smino, Monte Booker hits a resounding home run every time he is in the vicinity of the boards. When he proclaims, “Lil Monte on the beat, you got it on repeat,” it rings true across the tracklist.
Among the highlights of the entire project, Monte’s textural and warm signature sound pulls greatness out of Smino on tracks such as “Blu Billy,” where the St. Louis artist is provided the perfect grounds to speak about our collective preoccupation with prosperity that spans all walks of life. “I know hitters, I know dealers/ I know girls that set up n***s/ I know preachers, I know healers/ And I really don't feel no difference/ We all hustlers, Blu Billy, we conditioned by condition,” he muses.
Smino opts to forego any concerns about the misfires. Instead, he expands on everything that he did right on Noir and personalizes it. While hearing Smino serenade the fairer sex is nothing new, what sets him apart in this regard is that he peppers his tales of lustful conquests in a way that ensures they always retain their appeal, but there’s always room for vulnerability, too.
Even if he’s never shy of rolling the dice, he fittingly approaches his delivery with an inventiveness that borders brazenness on “Ol Ass Kendrick. Although remaining sleek and smooth in execution, Smino drops the bombast and his guard to touch on past heartache. “Stuck on the fact that the last time I actually had a girl I was so in it/ That I got stuck in the game like the Sega broke and I had to pull it out and blow in it,” he raps.
The melding of Smino’s artistry and the instrumentation on Luv 4 Rent is deserving of lavish praise. However, there’s no track in which this hits as acutely as on “Louphoria.” Led by organic bass and an indie rock guitar thump, there’s an argument to be made that it’s in lysergic haze that he truly excels. Rather than committing fully to a dreamlike terrain, Smino has the expressiveness to keep you alert and responsive even as the sonics luxuriously wash over. Plus it’s a testament to the immediate familiarity of the production as if it’d soundtracked the most blissful moments. This sense of calming deja-vu is also present on the inviting bounce of “Defibrillator. Helmed by Groove – who shot to prominence after producing “Sacrifices” on Revenge Of The Dreamers III – it probably doesn’t hurt that it contains a little more than traces of Jagged Edge’s “He Can’t Love You.” Nevertheless, it gives Smino space to convey the importance of family and the pride that he feels in helping them. “My uncle called me, he been jammed since I was hardly walking/ Told me them n***as in the yard be always talking 'bout me/ N***a, that's my nephew/ What he said, it make him proud, he smiled,” Smino raps.
If much is made of Smino’s ability to tantalize our senses with his more eccentric vocals, it’s safe to say that his more forthright and conversational delivery certainly deserves ample praise too and this comes in strong on “Modennaminute.” Later, Lucky Daye brings the pronounced merits of his own work and velvety voice to the project with immense effect. But if anyone besides Smino’s profile will be notably raised by their appearance on this record, it’s Rayvn Lerae. Floating over an exultant soul stomp that comes to mind the likes of Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions era, “Settle Down” sees her and Smino operate in perfect harmony as her breathy, entrancing delivery likely spawned a million searches for her own repertoire on streaming services.
While Smino scattered hints of it throughout the project, Outkast influence can’t be divorced from tracks such as the enthralling “Garden Lady.” Within its sharp runtime, Smino somehow manages to summon the spirit of both Big Boi and Three Stacks from within his own vocal cords. Similarly, his flow is straight out of The Dungeon Family playbook on “Pudgy” with Lil Uzi Vert.
Rounding things off with as much inventive spark as he began with, the exquisite Neo-soul of “Lee & Lovia” gives us one last insight into the lacerations from past loves that he carries around, with Smino thoughtfully prodding at his own insecurities.
A project that practically jostles with ideas, invention, and an abundance of talent, Luv 4 Rent is the record on which Smino goes from an exciting prospect for the future to an artist who is flourishing in the here and now. Consequently, we just hope that we hear more from him sooner, rather than later. But if not, at least he’s delivered a project that it’ll be a joy to revisit for many years to come.