D SMOKE – INGLEWOOD HIGH (WOODWORKS RECORDS)

As someone who is generally loathed to watch any sort of reality TV, I was nonetheless suckered in by Netflix’s new Rhythm + Flow, where Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, and T.I. look for the latest hip-hop superstar. Partly this was because R&F largely avoided the corny sentimentality and needless confrontation that other reality shows thrive on, but mainly it was because of D Smoke.

The California rapper turns up in the first episode which sees the three judges auditioning a host of wannabes, most of which are mediocre and generic. The second that D Smoke steps on stage, the vibe in the room changes. At 33, the bi-lingual D Smoke is nearly a decade older than many of the other contestants and his maturity on the mic emphatically underlines that difference. The difference continues throughout the season.

With many of his rivals serving up rehashed gangster raps, D Smoke is lyrically dexterous and riffs on themes like police brutality on ‘Let Migo’ or fake friendship on ‘Last Supper’, the second disguised in and extended biblical allegory. After finishing the final episode, he was the only artist I knew I would definitely be following up with.

Even so, the ability of TV to create a false narrative left doubts as to how good D Smoke would be outside of its confines. There was no doubt the skills were there but what would he do when cut loose to make the music he wanted to? Reality TV remains a terrible place to try and find genuine musical talent and I remain convinced that Cardi et al. stumbled onto the right result by accident rather than design.

However, I’m incredibly thankful that the inaugural winner is someone who is not only lyrically gifted, but a genuine musician with something to say because if Inglewood High proves anything, it’s that D Smoke isn’t just an artificial reality TV product. The album is lovingly produced throughout, epitomised by the soulful saxophone on the mellifluous ‘Honey Jack’, the standout track of seven. From start to finish D Smoke cruises over a creating a dreamy, almost ethereal soundscape that nicely compliments his laidback vocals.

Lyrically the album holds up as well, accomplishing the delicate feat of talking about serious topics while still holding on to an ethereal, dreamlike quality that lures you in. On ‘Honey Jack’ Smoke riffs on the reasons why he drinks, getting more and more morose as the track goes on, only to finally finish with some hard-hitting truths:

Systematic oppression, we just servants indentured
Politicians retire while we work ’til we in dentures
They kill our black heroes and then just give us one Avenger
Wakanda forever, my n***a

Yet for all the positives, it’s hard not to come away from Inglewood High without feeling that it was slightly truncated and cramped in places. It’s impossible to be sure but its sparse 21 minute run-time feels due to the need to rush out an album from the eventual winner of a hit Netflix show, rather than the album that D Smoke himself might have released if time pressures had been removed. There are some slightly discordant notes such as on the fifth track ‘The Game’. On an album this short, such mistakes only stand out more. However, this only makes me more intrigued to see what Smoke will come up with once the commotion around Rhythm + Flow has died down and he has settled into himself more as an artist.

Album Rating: Favourable (3.5)

Poor: 0-2 Stars / Favourable: 2-4 Stars / Highly Recommended: 4-5 Stars

 

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