John Smith
Pinky’s Laundromat

Peanuts & Corn

hile making the mundane interesting is part of the allure of modern music, this social magic isn’t typically associated with rap music. Lately though, whether its trailblazing everymen like Nas and Common or in the recent tradition of UK garage poster boy Mike Skinner (The Streets) and emotional Minnesota emcee Brother Ali, hip-hop is progressively becoming more and more down-to-earth. Thus is the draw to Winnipeg’s John Smith, the strongest emcee from the idiosyncratic Peanuts & Corn label and the author of this year’s surprising concept album Pinky’s Laundromat.

Best known for sarcastic songs about roller-skaters, street racers and wack emcees, John Smith’s second solo record doesn’t follow a conscious stream of events like, say, Mr. Lif’s I Phantom, but it takes each song as a separate character study on people in Winnipeg’s North End. Over the course of the album, “Smitty” (our narrator) describes a sexually confused amateur drug dealer (“Baypak”), a stoic old drunk in the corner of the bar (“Move So Slow”) and ugly couples on the bus (“Bumpin’ Uglies”), among other things. Each story is individually Canadian, with references to “the Sun girl” and other local signifiers. Regardless of the randomness of his targets or the silly nature of his vocals, Smith is a sharpshooter in every instance. When talking about unreliable drug buyers, he indicts them with sharp schemes: "Nuttier than fruitcakes, funny with the money / And they wanna front on my loot make / Tryna cop some, on an awesome / Deal, for a sealed maxi-single of 'Bop Gun'". Some may take issue with his heavy-handed multi-syllabic flow, but awkward rhymes are not as frequent as you’d expect. The album displays itself as a portfolio of sequences, with John Smith sounding much hungrier than any other sophomore contract killer in recent history.

“One Too Many for the None Too Friendly” has a gorgeous backdrop, with mesmerizing strings, ethereal flutes and icy piano, while the lyrics detail the dissolution of Smitty’s relationship with his girlfriend. His girl’s mother refuses to acknowledge Smith as a worthy choice and it all culminates at a family dinner, where a suitor is introduced by the matriarch. John’s lines are heartbreaking, especially when his intelligence is put into question (“Turned the other cheek, evaded my face well / When he learned I ain’t graduated from Grade 12”). When the original sample comes back and Smitty explores thoughts of people in his past, it cements the song as a deft piece of storytelling and the album as a circular narrative. People might overlook it, based on the subtlety of the fill-in-the-blank chorus or the sample shifts throughout the song, but this only highlights Smitty’s distinctive style.

With every album he produces for his self-run label, mcenroe reproves his mastery of traditional sampled beats. The only complaint most people have had with him was his limited use of instruments, in favor of more epic sounding samples (strings, orchestral pieces). But it seems here that he’s gotten over that hurdle, while expanding his affinity for epic soundscapes to different styles. “Bible Belt Babylon” kills, with light keys, throbbing bass and later, acidic guitar chopped into the original melody, while “Weed Sells But Who’s Buying?” takes saxophone from a cellar door funeral dirge and pairs it with absent-minded piano and subtle outline drums. His style mimics the lower end of the 90s, with a palette that ranges from Pete Rock brown to Prince Paul purple and onward. At this point, it’s arguable that one couldn’t really say anything is wrong with Mcenroe’s beats, other than the fact that he’s not making me any.

It’s not surprising that John Smith has succeeded with a concept album, where many others might have faltered. His conversational style immediately draws the listener in, making each track a personalized musical experience; his first album Blunderbus: In Transit had several very well-realized stories. No one could've expected a top five album though, as John Smith leaves the shadow of the Hip Hop Infinity web site's initial 'advanced listener' pigeonholing with an early 90s throwback that takes creative ideas into new areas of perception. Pinky’s Laundromat is the Canadian companion piece to A Grand Don’t Come For Free, and easily one of the strongest hip-hop albums of 2004.


Reviewed by: Rollie Pemberton

Reviewed on: 2004-11-01

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