On his entirely self-produced debut solo album “Spore Attic,” Portland rapper Smyth stays tethered to old school sounds while subtly breaking genre conventions.
Smyth has been a mainstay of Eugene’s house show scene for over a year. He’s released two full-length instrumental albums in the past two years, demonstrating a knack for soul samples and boom bap. In 2018, Smyth released a collaborative album called “Cornballin’ on a Budget” with Portland rapper Este, introducing the world to a dextrous flow filled with disarming charm.
In the past, Smyth’s technical strengths have been a double-edged sword. The man can rap extremely well, with multisyllabic rhyme patterns outlining a thesaurus worth of hip-hop and sports references. They come too fast to grab in one sitting, making his music rewarding to sit with and revisit. However, the dense nature of his lyricism can seem inaccessible to novice hip-hop fans. They’re going to struggle to pick up on the stylistic nods.They’re not going to understand the rarity of an entirely self-produced debut album.
On “Spore Attic,” Smyth kills any thoughts of inaccessibility by slowing down where it matters, and showing off where it doesn’t. If we’re looking to retire the absurdist braggadocio of contemporary hip-hip, then Smyth could be the humble king we’ve been looking for. Although “Spore Attic” isn’t without absurdist flexing (“I’m crushing beers on ottomans while munching food that’s artisan,”) it comes with enough wit and charm to swoon even the lowliest of haters.
Smyth, first and foremost, is a student of the rap game. His knowledge of hip-hop, and music in general, shines through on nearly every track. The exceptional first single, “Shrink Rap,” featuring Eugene’s own DJ Food Stamp, is a labyrinth of hip-hop history through Smyth’s own personal collection of rare and classic vinyls. The video was shot and edited by Portland-based videographer Riley Brown and features Smyth going through his record collection, marveling at the impact this music has had on himself and those around him. It’s both fun and intensely personal, allowing listeners a peek behind the curtain of Smyth’s musical influences.
As much as Smyth owes to the rappers that came before him, he’s never afraid to be himself. This is the biggest strength of “Spore Attic.” Because while Smyth is continually paying homage to the art form that’s given him purpose, he also isn’t afraid to challenge it. Notably missing from Spore Attic is the lazy misogyny found in most mainstream hip-hop releases throughout the last three decades. Smyth addresses the rare space he holds within the hip-hop community in a typically self-aware fashion on “Know Escape / Raf & Wynnerlude,” where he acknowledges his identity while using a cleverly self-censoring his own lyrics to fully drive the point home. “These odds, unevenly propitious, for a white-cis-het male who won’t call women…” It brings attention to how lazy other rappers are when discussing women, while allowing Smyth the opportunity to distance himself from other artists.
Normally, when a well-known artist makes a singular song “for the ladies,” it comes off as virtue signaling hypocrisy when considering past objectifying lyrics — like when Kanye finally realizes women are people nearly 20 years into his career, after frightfully imagining his daughter becoming sexually active. You won’t find this type of insincerity on “Spore Attic” or any other Smyth album, for that matter. He chooses cleverness and authenticity in lieu of masculine rap tropes without being pretentious or preachy.
“Spore Attic” is a worthy addition to Portland’s ever-growing hip-hop scene. It’s a debut album that already feels like a victory lap. Smyth succeeds in establishing a signature sound that could only be made by him — presumably in a dark basement with old vinyl records strewn about the room like confetti.