Rent is too high in L.A. On Smino’s new album ‘Luv 4 Rent,’ it’s on the house
The tenderest moment on Smino’s new album, “Luv 4 Rent,” arrives soon after its midpoint on a song called “Defibrillator,” when the St. Louis artist layers his vocals at the chorus to sing the words, “I’ll be loved when none’s around.”
The song aims to sow hope into a broken heart, inspired by a call Smino had with his imprisoned uncle who spoke with amazement at seeing his nephew’s music pop up in the prison kiosk before he could type in all the letters.
That same uncle called Smino again the other day, after hearing his nephew’s J. Cole-assisted single “90 Proof.” While on the phone, he shared something that stuck with Smino: People in the prison were bumping his music, drawn to the warmth of R&B and themes of love rather than trap-laden street tales filled with pain.
“N— want to hear about Black joy too,” Smino said. “N— want to hear about love, about good s—, and feel good. Our joy way more powerful than our trauma.”
Joy takes the wheel on “Luv 4 Rent,” a jittery roller coaster from start to finish fueled by cannabis and Casamigos. The vibe is best illustrated in a three-song run near the end of the album — starting with the frantic unloading of stress on “Settle Down,” which gives way to the thudding bounce of “Pudgy” before “Curtains” dissipates the smoke with a proclamation of generational healing: “Like curtains for certain, I check my account / Buy my grand-daddy house and passing it down.”
Even cold truths are packaged in a fuzzy warmth on the album. “Blu Billy” likens drug dealers to preachers and healers to hustlers — all souls conditioned to chase the dollar — his words recited over wobbly keys that bring to mind ice cream in the summer rather than capitalism’s bitter medicine.
Two days before the album dropped, Smino strolled the grounds at the Beehive, the bustling event space off Central Avenue that’s infused a new energy in South Los Angeles. On a typical afternoon, the space is either overrun by neighborhood kids using the tech center or adults mingling in the sunshine at monthly open air pop-up Black Market Flea or traveling party series Everyday People; today it’s mostly empty, save for a few construction workers and staff.
Black Market Flea is something to be felt. As much as it’s a showcase of L.A. streetwear brands, artists, healers, it’s a showcase of love.
Smino’s familiar with the location and has dropped in more than a few times since moving to Los Angeles in 2019 — Everyday People is the perfect blend of “righteousness and ratchetness,” he said. He paced through the sprawling campus as if it was his home, queueing up vintage Lil Wayne cuts on his phone while making his way toward the courtyard.
“I can smoke weed in the newspaper?” he asked once he reached the lawn, lighting up a blunt before he received an answer.
It’s been four years since Smino’s last studio album, “Noir,” and if he’s stressed at all about the new release, he doesn’t show it. In the time since that album, he departed Interscope for Motown Records, moved to Los Angeles and dropped a 2020 mixtape, “She Already Decided,” that lives not on streaming services but on the cleverly named SmiTransfer website.
The concept of “Luv 4 Rent” has been the lone constant throughout that time of transition. Smino began the album in 2019 but scrapped it multiple times before arriving at the version that came out on Oct. 28.
“It was a lot of hurt fun,” he said of the initial album, which was finished in 2020. “It’s the initial forehead grab when you bump your head, that’s what all the songs sounded like. Not the ‘Aw, I realized why I bumped my head, I’m learning.’ That’s what this one sounds like.”
The idea came to him at a rare moment when he was single. Eventually he got into a new relationship and the scope of love on the album evolved, touching on romance, friendships and self-love, along with the ups and downs of each. As he grew in each, he assumed the role of the lovelord, parceling it out to all he came across while saving just enough for himself.
“I’m not scared to show love, I’m not reserved with my love, I’m not waiting on the perfect opportunity to love, because I am love and I walk in love,” he said. “It was like, I got enough to give out to all y’all. Love for rent.
“I think self-love really is just self-discipline,” he continued. “Self-discipline helps you check in with yourself, and check yourself. That might be the toughest part.”
Smino, real name Christopher Smith Jr., was born into a musical family in St. Louis. Rather than educating his son on music through the radio, Smino’s father played the piano for him at home and also did his part to school him on the essentials any time they weren’t in the house.
“He’d also listen to a lot of smooth jazz in the car,” Smino said. “Erykah, Jill, Soulquarians. The first rap he ever put me on was Busta Rhymes’ first album.”
Smino picked up the drums at age 7 and soon started producing music for himself. His first creations were heavily inspired by what he heard around him and on the radio, but the sound evolved as he grew more comfortable with the craft.
“I’m very different, very black sheep from St. Louis,” he said. “In person, I’m a St. Louis n—, but outside of that, I just like cool-ass art. I like cool s—. I like when it’s bright, colorful, loud, bass in your s—.”
The ‘Born Sinner’ album is a hit, powered by the single ‘Power Trip.’ The performer balances a low-key demeanor with a new level of fame.
There were a few attempts at reinvention, but the true discovery came after he moved to Chicago, where he met then-upcoming producer Monte Booker at Classick Studios in 2012.
At the time, Booker hadn’t found his true pocket either — he was primarily focused on making rattling drill beats more suitable for the next Chief Keef. But as the friendship between Smino and Booker formed, the producer opened up his own off-center vault, finding for the first time an artist who would not just appreciate it, but complement it.
“Our first song was a drill song,” Booker said. “But then I played him some of my weird music — the stuff I’d never play my homies because they thought it was too weird — and he understood it because he’s a musician. He was the first artist to hop on anything different that I’d made.”
Booker produced nearly every song off Smino’s debut project, “blkswn,” and about half of his 2018 follow-up, “Noir,” (both are listed as albums, but Booker would describe them more as mixtapes after “blkswn” was initially posted for free).
“A lot of our music is fire if you understand it,” Booker said. “But we didn’t want that this time. We didn’t want our music to be like an art exhibit, we wanted the world to understand it too. We’re still learning, but I feel like we found a good middle with ‘Luv 4 Rent.’”
“I feel like I’ve been on pause for a minute,” Smino added. “I’ve had a whole bunch of ideas and a whole bunch of time to execute them. New s— and new blessings are about to come, just because I put that much emphasis into what I’m doing.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.