If you’ve never listened to a Smoko Ono track, you may want to reconsider. The Chicago native is responsible for music from some of the Windy City’s notable artists including Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and Joey Purp. Outside of his hometown, he’s collaborated with YBN Cordae, Denzel Curry, Meg Thee Stallion, and many more. Gearing up for his late-summer album, Smoko Ono has brought out Corinne Bailey Rae and LA-based neo-soul artist, UMI for his new single “You Are”. The laidback R&B cut features electric guitar riffs performed by Canadian singer, Daniel Caesar, and moody instrumentation, creating the perfect canvas for Rae and UMI to float over. To celebrate his latest single, Smoko and Rae teamed up to dish about the new single.
Smoko Ono believes in quality over quantity. Creating the beat for “You Are” alongside Daniel Caesar two years ago, it would take him a few more months to find the perfect artists for the song. “At the time, it was just a beat. We didn’t really know that it would be “You Are”, I just knew it was going to be special. Raeactually came into town a month later and I played it for her”, he says. Although Rae penned a few verses for the song, it was still missing something – UMI. Super excited to collab with a childhood fav, UMI didn’t hesitate to hop on the song with Rae.
There’s something special about a song that can bring Corinne Bailey Rae out of hiding. The recluse artist has stepped in and out of the shadows for more than a decade, with her last musical appearance dating back to 2019. “When I met with Smoko, we had plenty of ideas that we wanted to work on, but this song really stood out and I knew that I wanted to write for this one. There is something about the distorted guitar; that late 60s, early 70s type of feel”, she describes the genre-bending production. Her passion for Black music that intersects with psychedelics and rock brings another connection to “You Are” for the singer/songwriter.
“It reminds me of the Isley Brothers and their use of distorted guitar riffs”, she continues. Finding musical solace in the creativity and are that oozes out of Chicago, she found the perfect atmosphere to lay everything on the track. “It’s such a creative place and an important Black city in terms of history and the movement of people through Chicago”, she explained. “You Are” is the personification of the surrealness of nature for the artist. While Smoko created the canvas, Rae paints the connection between oneself and nature. “At the time, I was deep into the union of philosophy. Everything in fairytales is “you are”. You are red-riding hood, the woodcutter, and the wolf. You’re everything. So, you see an insurmountable object like a mountain but it’s also seeing yourself as that mountain. You are all of the things and you are capable of overcoming those things”. Beautifully put.
As a producer, creating the beat is only half of the process. Finding the right artist can also take a little time. For Ono, time is always on his side. “With music, it’s always about time. I just had a song with DRAM release that I made five years ago, and he just put Summer Walker on it. For me, it’s a timing thing. Sometimes you’re emotionally attached to beats. But it’s also about who wants to work with you. For Corinne, she just happened to be driven to that song and then after she recorded it, I was like “wow”, but it still needed more. That’s how I got UMI to do the bridge and add her touch. Also, her looking up to Corinne, it was truly a timing thing”.
Both artists believe in timing and not rushing the process but that doesn’t always stave off the feeling of being left behind. “I’ve had phases in my music when I’ve focused on everything around me and it’s a paralyzing feeling. Comparison can break or kill creativity and when I’ve felt like that, it kind of closes everything down”, Rae chimed in. Having experienced this feeling first hand after her 2006 award-winning self-titled debut, she understands the difficulty of leaving a sound behind. “I was so happy, and it was so successful, but you can end up with people who want you to recreate that. My second album was a rejection to that need to recreate but I can stay that my process since then has been breaking free from those expectations”, she continues.
“You see it a lot when fans love your first sound, but they want you to stay in that same sound. You’ve seen that with Ye and Chance. I have to be honest, I don’t listen to hip-hop and rap when I’m not working because I find myself getting stuck on one sound or starting to sound like someone else. I try to always find new and different sounds, so I don’t get caught up in have one sound”. For Smoko fans, he assures that the upcoming album is definitely going to explore some new sounds – fans won’t hear any rap-inspired tracks. While the release date for his album is still pending, Rae did dish a few details about what she has in the works. “I’ve got like four albums in the works. I’ve got one in response to Chicago’s Stoney Island Arts Bank, some indie records, and some personal records as well. I have so much music inside me that I can’t wait to get out”. While fans of both artists wait patiently for some new music, go ahead and toss “You Are” in your rotation.