The fan picked the “ratchet right side,” and the crowd went wild, but the decision seemed irrelevant. Smino had used that kind of tried-and-true crowd work all night, even getting the audience to throw their hands in the air and wave them like they just don’t care. His ability to do it all without feeling corny was just one of his many gifts on display.
Smino is a 27-year-old rapper from St. Louis who found his musical home a few hours up I-55 in Chicago. It was there that he collaborated with such contemporaries as Noname, Saba and Mick Jenkins, forging his own take on the city’s kaleidoscopic acid rap sound. By the time he released his debut album, “blkswn,” in 2017, he sounded fully formed: a rapper with an elastic flow, a pen that favored oblique rhymes and wordplay, and an ear for wonky beats that skitter or slither, depending on his mood.
He did plenty of both at the Fillmore, performing to a sold-out crowd while backed by a full band. On a set adorned with a hot-pink hoopty, faded yellow tires, chrome hubcaps and a prop soda machine, Smino felt like the ringleader in a circus of his own creation. For their part, the audience was raucous and ready, rocking and singing and screaming along. Whether he delivered frantic reggae (“Tequila Mockingbird”), neo-neo-soul (“Anita”), a halftime ode to blunts and cheap wine (“Wild Irish Roses”), or a double-time cleanse (“Khlorine”), Smino had something for every moment.
And while he had more than two albums worth of material to toy with, Smino also took time to interpolate nostalgic crowd favorites, such as “It’s Goin’ Down” by Yung Joc and “Say Yes” by Floetry. He even got the crowd “Swag Surfin’ ” with the one-hit wonder that has become a social phenomenon, especially at HBCUs.
A swag surf is one way to have concert communion; a mosh pit is another. Toward the end of the show, Smino entreated the crowd to “open the pit” but told them to “be as safe as you can.” While his call for moshing wasn’t quite heeded — Smino is more a soulman than a rock star — give the kid an A for effort.
After a nearly 90-minute set — with Smino joking that he already played “39,000 songs” — he finally closed the show, ensuring that even if it was the audience’s first time seeing him, it wouldn’t be the last time.