Johnny Smathers is an artist whose all-encompassing musical perspective doesn’t notice the lines between genres, only the radical sublimation of different aesthetics and experiences. He straddles the line between groove-addled R&B bliss and melodic hip-hop momentum —his songs place on foot in the early ’90s and the other firmly in 2018. He’s able to effortlessly and astutely combine the sounds of the past and the present into a mass of aching rhythms, gossamer arrangements and cavernous lyrical insight.
Originally from Arlington, Virginia, Smathers now calls the Scenic City home, finding inspiration in this adopted landscape. He traces his influences back to musicians like OutKast and Gang Starr, artists who carried with them a fully formed idea of their own inner musical processes and who were able to find new ways to say universal truths. His silky and consummate R&B sounds mesh perfectly with the harder-edged hip-hop echoes which provide the bones and muscles of his expansive sound.
On his latest album, “Thx 4 Leaving,” he explores these sounds with all the practiced skill of a seasoned surgeon, attaching and dissecting various genres with little regard for history or expectation. These 8 songs possess more of a grim outlook than some of the music he’s released in the past; you can hear it immediately when the opening track, “Been Broke Intro,” samples “Suicide is Painless” by Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman. In his attempt to make sense of the senseless, he brings in a handful of musicians including Swayyvo, Maria Jordania Sable, Phil McClain, Elijah Daxx and Bonzai Lowe to help him find the perfect balance of light and dark.
Working with a slew of talented producers (Based-Bleach, Tusken., Kreaem, Tadashi, Swayyvo, MacKenzie and Kazam), Smathers is able to harness the inherent power and energy of these sounds to act as his personal storyteller, revealing the hurt and ache that inspired so much of “Thx 4 Leaving.” Songs like “OoWee” and “Your Own Supply” find him strolling the borders between vast expanses of various genres, discovering a mass of unbreakable musical connective tissue in the process. Liquid melodies and complex movements highlight his tenacious ability to find the bridge between personal experience and rhythmic revelation.
“This album was sort of about a reinvention of my life, trying to pick up my life after a break up and turn it into something that I can grow from. Writing for me has always been a way to make sense of things, and this is my process. I didn’t really set out to make a album, but sometimes things just happen this way. I am looking forward to putting out something less melancholy in the coming months, but this was something I had to do for myself first and foremost.”
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.