I’ve long been impressed with SmCity‘s shrewd, business-minded approach. Three years ago, as part of his Indie Life Concert Series, Sm brought nationally recognized rappers to U Street Music Hall to perform alongside the region’s notable talent: Gods’Illa, Uptown XO, and G-Two, among others.
Since then, he and business partner Allia (formerly known as Harmony Muzik) have taken that homegrown concept to the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas. Sm created the series not only to shine light on other rappers, but to gain broader attention for his own music and professional acumen.
With Empire Falls, SmCity’s recently released album, the rapper muses thoughtfully atop today’s bouncy aesthetic, blending authentic topics with popular sounds to pull in more listeners. Whether or not the approach will work is unclear. But it’s a smart technique that should resonate with those who like radio-friendly beats.
Empire Falls feels like an all-in effort, an aural culmination of the hustle and mic skills Sm’s exhibited over the years. Previously, he would’ve remained low key about his feelings, saving a few bits for social media. Here, it’s refreshing to hear those frustrations, jaded resentment coming from a man who’s been through some bullshit and struggles to keep going. Take “Cinematic Moment” as an example: Sm’s pissed that he’s underrated, but he feels his time is coming. When “Always Outnumbered” rolls around, the rapper names names: “Now they say you either BOA, or you’re 368, that’s the only way to make it out these D.C. gates/As you can see we straight, shit, me and Harmony like an Army of two.”
In case you’re wondering: BOA refers to the Board Administration imprint that once had Fat Trel on its roster; 368 is singer Raheem DeVaughn‘s boutique label with rapper Phil Adé on its team. Sm’s reference doesn’t feel like a diss; he’s just debunking the local myth that rappers should align with those brands to get national recognition.
Sm reveals more on “Price Tag,” but the rapper sounds tired of industry politics—the payola, the Worldstar glamour, the grind for page clicks. “Wanna know the music bidness biggest challenge?/Nobody gives a fuck about a nigga’s talent,” Sm asserts. “They all know you the truth, they all know you the one/Still they look the other way ’till they know you got funds.”
A sad reality, but true nonetheless. Still, statements like those are why Empire Falls works: No, you won’t see it on many year-end best of lists. And no, you probably won’t hear one of its songs in heavy radio rotation. But it’s sincere and brutally honest. It’s driven by raw emotion and artistic frustration. It comes from a very real place, and from a person trying to break through the glass ceiling. Good thing authenticity doesn’t expire.
Stream the album below.