Thrown into Relief: An Interview with Rapper Jahshua Smith
Exploring topics like poverty, Black consciousness, burgeoning love, and mortality, Jahshua Smith's latest album, They Don't Love You Like That, encapsulates some of the most difficult moments in his life.
They Don't Love You Like That
12 September 2019Other
You can call him the one that got away. Jahshua Smith, a rapper and musician who's been plying his craft for well over a decade, has managed to slip through the cracks in the most inconceivable of ways. It started when he turned down a developmental deal with Universal Records. The young Smith balked at the unthinkable responsibilities that might come with such a burden. Opting to take the sensible route, he continued with his college studies.
But it isn't just the refusal of a coveted opportunity that has kept Smith from wider public attention. Smith's dogged methods of finding ways around the ways has kept him a sidelined curio throughout his years as a recording artist. Rather than refer to the tired tropes of trap music that have been unceremoniously clogging up the airwaves and online feeds, he relies on the time-worn strengths of old-school hip-hop, turning out tracks that are always fresh even as they are built on foundations more than 25 years old. And instead of turning to social media platforms, Smith has remained a low-key player, forgoing much of the shameless self-promotion that has cluttered many a timeline feed.
Yet his presence is still strongly felt. One listen to his artfully daedal rhymes and you'll wonder how such a talent is not on your radar. Often, Smith teeters on a dangerous precipice of delivery, a cautious balance between throwing down hard and grinding flows and relaying the narratives with sensitivity and nuance. It's an approach that has seen him through three full-length albums and a number of EPs.
Beginning with the brash bangs of his first album, The Final Season (2013), Smith introduced himself proper to an audience as an artist who kept his influences (everyone from Nas and Raekwon to Gangstarr and Pete Rock) in check. Stripped of any fussy trills and frills, The Final Season presses the hip-hop down to the bone, throwing the rapper's stark rhymes into relief against the backdrop of bare beats and some slips of melody.
It certainly makes a case for Universal Records' initial interest in the artist. Offering such soul-baring confessionals like "The Ghost of Medgar Evers" and "Can't Seem to Find It", Smith had already begun carving a niche for himself as a thoughtful MC hovering on the peripheries of the party-banging masses.
Other tracks like the soulful rubdowns of "Lylah's Song" and "Night in Lights" demonstrated the artist's burgeoning sense of arrangement and melody, his ability to use a sample and riff to ingenious effect. For an indie album, it's startling in its level of professionalism, executed with clean lines and a clear sense of purpose.
Working at a considered pace, Smith put the motions in for The 4th Wall, his 2016 follow-up that upped the ante and pumped his grooves with even more swagger and strut. If The Final Season struck to make an impression, then The 4th Wall was the effort that destroyed the granite. Every bit as moody and soulful as its predecessor, Smith's sophomore effort finds him honing his rhymes to a sinuous element that stretches around the grooves as nimbly as a serpent.
Heavy, robust sways like "Not You" and urban-noir jams like "Grey Goose Quesadillas" show growth and development in his craft, the rapper expanding generously on the funk and blues he flirted with on his debut. Critically lauded but publicly ignored (as was the case with The Final Season), success and wider adulation once again escaped Smith and he retreated to the studio for yet another round of songwriting sessions.
They Don't Love You Like That, Smith's 2019 release, encapsulates some of the most difficult moments in his life these last three years. The album's spark of inspiration, a terrible car accident that nearly took the rapper's life, is transmitted through the walloping funk of the opening track "Crash/Hold Tight". If you keep your nodding head at rest for a moment, you'll hear an anguishing tale of survival in the face of death.
This is the darker side of Smith's art, which takes the listener through a range of experience and emotion. It's also his most articulate and realized collection of work, one that is sure to have many wondering about the opportunities that that Universal deal could have brought him.
Exploring many topics like poverty, Black consciousness, burgeoning love and mortality, They Don't Love You Like That also expands on the palette of sounds the rapper had previously experimented with. Still using old-school hip-hop as a touchstone, Smith adds layers of mellow funk, R&B harmonies and some ambient electronica to the mix. He tops it all off with a refined pop sensibility to give his jams some serious palatability.
Building upon the bassy heaviness of his last album, Smith and his production team employ the mixing board as though it were an instrument itself, igniting the bass to dynamite highs and letting the bottom-end swallow the listener whole. "Get the Fuck Up", features a pummeling, rolling groove with a morphing electronic bassline. On the album's most explosive banger "Light", Smith busts loose a string of touchpaper rhymes that seriously test his aggression meter. And to offset all this heaviness, numbers like "June" and "Waiting in the Rain" offer warm, airy retreats from the bulldozing beats that dominate the album.
Smith's live shows have often been a small, contained spectacle, proving the artist's worth in a small burst of inspired performance. Often appearing onstage with a full, live-band set-up, the rapper has designed his latest album to be deconstructed and reassembled with the kind of live re-working that owes more to soul bands than it does hip-hop. Future plans for touring the album promise a set of exciting live shows.
With three albums into his career, Smith remains on the brink of discovery. And there is much to be discovered in his earnest and brazen songs, his storied rhymes of community and dissension. He gives PopMatters a hot minute to discuss the work that went into making his latest release.
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How and when did you begin work on They Don't Love You Like That? Did you have material that you were slowly developing over the last couple of years? Or did you sit down for a stretch of time and just intensely work to write and record?
The process for They Don't Love You Like That was really cool and different from any way I've ever worked on a record before. A lot of the studio sessions were open invites to friends of mine -- rappers, vocalists, musicians, producers -- who I just wanted to work on new records with. Slowly, I started to piece together the album's theme of self-love in the face of intense doubt, and it became more intentional to have the right features bring that to the surface.
Some songs like "Makes Me Wanna Murder" and "On Everything I Love" were pieces that nearly made the cut on The 4th Wall, so I started there and just began to write what I was feeling. I had these periodic bouts where I would write after big life changes ... namely the car accident I was involved in, and 2018 was really a matter of reaching out to the right friend to make the song special.
It took you about three years to release another album. What was your life like in the years between albums?
I always take a cue from my good friend Chris Orrick when he told me "I can't just make an album every six months, I gotta do some living." I want to find balance with the frequency in which I get a project done. I can guarantee that it won't be another three years again, but in that time, I was able to find a peace that I hadn't been familiar with in some years.
From 2016-2019, life has been about rebuilding a lot of what I felt I had lost through the recording of the first two albums. I was heavily depressed for a good chunk of this decade, and during the year that I was in Brooklyn (2015) I finally took the steps necessary to advocate for my own self care. A lot of therapy and figuring out that I even still wanted to do music.
When I came home in 2016, the first thing I did was work to put out The 4th Wall. There were these intense highs that followed soon after, (like the birth of my niece) complimented by some extreme lows (the car accident). But with every setback I felt way more equipped to handle everything life was giving me, and set some new goals with music that provided me a spark to keep going.
There are a lot of themes on this new album. But I feel it's a bit darker than your last one, The 4th Wall. You discuss a car accident you were involved in on one of the songs, "Crash/Hold Tight". Can you discuss the experiences you rap about on that song?
I was in Downtown Detroit with my good friend and graphic designer Sean "Smack" Mack coming from Joe Louis Arena when we pulled up to a four-way stop light. I was in the passenger seat, he was driving, and his godbrother was in the back seat. When it was his time to pass through the stop, a car flew through the light and hit us directly on the side I was sitting. This little sedan was going so fast that it made his Ford Explorer roll over and eventually we landed on the driver's side, which left me airborne and Sean and his godbrother on their side.
I remember my thoughts clearly being like "Am I dead? Okay I'm not dead. Is everyone else okay? Okay I hear crying and gasping, so everyone is okay" and started going into 'how do we get out?' mode. So, when I talk about crawling through the sunroof of the car and referencing "Smack on the concrete", it's really me going back over the initial trauma of that night by retracing everything as it happened. I had all these thoughts racing through my head waiting on the police to show up:
The SUV was completely totaled...you could've died.
Your niece isn't here yet...she almost lost her uncle.
I'm at odds with so-and-so...I might not have been able to tell them how I feel
What about my mom...how will she react?
It was scary. I was thankful that we came out without any scars or broken bones, but the accident wrecked my back and I had to do physical therapy. My anxiety about travel I can't control has also gotten way worse. So to start with, that story on They Don't Love You Like That helps pull everything together, because if we don't survive that crash, nothing else happens.
But the second half of the song, which is literally just bragging and boasting and reminding the two cities I rep musically that my foot is back on their necks collectively, felt really triumphant. The devil tried to take us out, but we're still here and mentally stronger for having experienced it.
Some tracks are pointed references to your anger. "Makes Me Wanna Murder" is one of them.
"Makes Me Wanna Murder" references the first time I ever dealt with death in a way that wasn't natural. I stayed with my great-grandmother for a couple summers, and sometimes I would sneak off with my best friend who lived across the street and play ball a few blocks down. We were cool with these two brothers, and some other older kids (I was nine or ten years old around the time) who used to look out for us and keep us out of trouble.
Photo by © Krissy Booth courtesy of Krissy Booth
"A healthy amount of failure is more beneficial than we realize."
One night I was at one of the courts playing later than I should've been, and some guys I'd never seen before came up on the group of us. So, my friend and I left to go to the store around the corner and wait it out since we didn't feel comfortable walking home alone. About an hour later we started to head home, but we went by our boys' house to see them since we got separated. When we got there, we knew something was up, because there were a bunch of people crying and running in and out of the house, but we didn't know until we got to the porch that the younger brother of our two friends had been shot in the neck. We saw him bleed out on the porch. He was gone before an ambulance even got there.
That was the first time I'd ever seen anything like that, and I repressed that memory for years. Wouldn't talk about it, didn't tell my family, never really went over it with my friend... I think most of that was based on not being where we should've been, and not wanting to answer questions from my folks about why I thought it was okay to hang when/where I shouldn't have been hanging. But when I wrote "Makes Me Wanna Murder", it was the first time I ever sat and dealt with how I really felt, and a lot of the anger I had built up wishing I could've stood up for my friend knowing I couldn't. Anger over running, anger over not having any control.
The second verse references a situation where a friend of mine got locked up for some months for a murder charge that he was eventually exonerated for, on some 'he fit the profile' type stuff. It just burns me up, because there's never any accountability for anything like that. You can derail the future of a college graduate for half a year, for a mistake you made, and there's no consequence. So, in a lot of ways I added that to the story, book-ended by the narrative of my friend's murder, because it really outlined how useless I felt in each instance. It made me want to lash out, so I shared my darkest, rawest thoughts about it all.
They Don't Love You Like That features a cruder style of mixing that pares back the gloss to allow the rougher, more bassy textures to be exposed. How has your use of bass given the album its particular shape?
If it don't bump, you can't ride to it! [laughs]. Stalley has a great breakdown on "She Hates the Bass" about how significant it is to the hip-hop culture to have that sound present in the music. To me, you have to give people the whole package.
I've always been driven by the beat in the music I like, so I want my own music to represent that taste. I appreciate my engineer on the project, TheyCallMeHeat [real name DeMarnio Stanley] for helping the vision of giving the project some knock but also finding the pocket for my lyrics to sit and be prominent.
I will always be intentional about my lyrics and the stories I tell, but there needs to be an element that makes people want to sit with it regardless of their mood. I think a lot of us have had a moment where we just wanna roll out in a car, max the bass out and let everyone see them playing their favorite song as they ride through the city. It makes people pay attention, it makes you the star. Adding bass to my stories is what I hope makes other people willing to pay it forward and feature those stories when they have their moment to be the star.
I want someone to ask "Damn, who is that? That song kinda knocks!" when they play my album. But I admit the self-indulgence in all of that.
Often when you play live, you employ a live-band (drums, guitar, bass, keys, etc) rather than the usual DAT or turntable-styled playing in live hip-hop. Are you playing a live tour for this album? Do you have any shows you are preparing for? Also, have you considered touring outside of the US?
We play a lot of one-off shows. I haven't really envisioned a whole tour for the album yet. My 2020 is wide open for any possibilities, and I would love to play this record live anywhere that people are willing to listen. They Don't Love You Like That feels concert ready because some of the songs have direct contributions from my bassist Tyler Terrell who, along with other members of the band I frequently gig with, take an active role in creating new arrangements designed to make it sound better live.
You have remained an independent artist for your entire career. Are you happy where you are as a recording artist? Would you like to move into the majors, if it meant getting your music to a wider audience? You almost had a record contract some years back...
I always think back to 2006-07 when I was regularly having talks with Universal about signing a developmental deal. I have no regrets about not signing with a major, but it took a long time to recognize my faults with being an independent artist. I would say I'm not as happy as I could've been, with so many long stretches away from music and trying to make it happen out of my own pocket. It's one thing to say you deserve more, but it's a totally different thing to say you put in the effort and it still didn't happen.
I think at best I put in 50 percent of the effort, even if I also believe giving my music time has made the content better. The industry has changed, and I didn't change with it. Now I'm not 19 and 20 any more, but grown with a different standard of living. That's made me adapt in a way that does bring me great joy, though. So, while working with kids and hosting workshops to talk about how hip-hop helps soothe trauma and inspires people is not exactly the way I dreamed my career would go when I was young, I'm extremely grateful and satisfied by it.
But I also stopped saying I wasn't ready to take the deal when I was younger, and started keeping it real that I was scared to take the leap. I think people should always take the leap as long as it doesn't hurt them or their loved ones. Being afraid to fail takes you out of the game early. A healthy amount of failure is more beneficial than we realize.
You have a strong sense of visuals in your sound, as well as a more literate quality. Are there any books or films that have inspired your music or your songwriting?
I'm influenced by everything! [laughs]. Books, movie scenes, other artists that I know personally and ones that I listened to growing up. I credit Janet Jackson a lot for shaping how I look at an album's themes and cohesion in sequencing. Little Brother coming out with May the Lord Watch  reminded me how much of my musical DNA with my three solo albums are based on what they did with The Minstrel Show .
When Toni Morrison passed it hit me how much one's influence can have on you. She challenged me a lot as an author growing up, because she had these visceral depictions of Black men in her novels that really forced me to evaluate what kind of man I would be when I grew up. So when I reference The Bluest Eye on "June" ("in my daydreams, I visit skyscrapers in Mali/ to contrast that live Bluest Eye reference to Cholly") to talk about my relationship with my uncle. Or when I create a whole song from the perspective of the children in the novel ("Say the Words" on The Final Season), that influence holds deep significance. Of all the writers whose work I've ever referenced or loved, she's the one whose genius I tried to invoke in my music.
"Technicolor'd" is the direct result of trying to make a Songs in the Key of Life-type of arrangement. Stevie [Wonder] would take these musicians, all legends, and give them a part to bring a song to life. So to have James, Melissa, Ozay, and Kyle Lake (who's interlude to the song I moved to the end of "Get the Fuck Up" to make it more palatable for streaming) all add something unique and spiritual to this beat that KuroiOto and Tyler could collaborate on. I also have PhourTheLove in the room helping arrange, co-produce and co-write.
That was huge. It made me feel like I could be a producer again in more of the Quincy Jones sense, where you have the trust of people you love and can guide them to make your vision happen. And I trust them even more to tell me if something works or if it doesn't!
You are primarily a musician. But do you have any other artistic pursuits, any other mediums you are exploring or would like to explore ?
My pen is always active. I write short stories that have sometimes been broken down again into songs, and when I was younger I actually took a creative writing and screenwriting class that I would love to follow up on. Eric Huffman, one of my best friends (who you've heard cuss me out for two albums as Executive Huff), talks more and more about wanting to write and direct his own films and I hope he's knows I'm not joking when I say I want to do more in that arena.
I think creatives have a calling in certain areas, and I've never been unclear that mine was rap. But I've always been willing to take the time to explore those other areas of writing, and as a result I know no matter what I do in life my pen or my microphone will be involved. I just want to continue to facilitate the discussion of all the topics that are dear to me. To give people the space to discuss mental health. For men to talk about the relationships they have with themselves and others. To inspire. If that's music, film, literature, or on stage, I'm gonna keep trying to do it.
You already discussed a little bit about your childhood, but could you go a little more into detail about your childhood and teenage years? Were you the honor student or the troublemaker? What are some of your memories of childhood, especially when it comes to hip-hop culture?
I feel like I was dead set in the middle [laughs]. My mother was way too perceptive for me to get into any real trouble and there was a lot of nurture there to help my own reasoning along. One of my students rather brilliantly broke down the difference between "hood" and "street", where the hood kids knew the street kids, but weren't banging, dealing, or robbing people. But he was explaining that despite the divide, 100 percent of those kids understand the experience and the struggle.
Some of my best friends did things like that, but it was never my path. The complex part about growing up like that means having a lot of people invested in your growth that aren't confident they can grow in the same way. So having people tell you to stay in school, that didn't want to do the same, was harrowing.
With hip-hop I was really drawn into it because of my love for jazz. I love Ahmad Jamal, for example, so when I heard "The World is Yours" by Nas all those years ago, it hit different. Then I started realizing what you could do with words over those instrumentals and I got hooked.
The culture changed so much in my formative years that it expanded what I loved — was always a big fan of Tupac, Biggie, OutKast, and Scarface among others. But I also loved silly stuff like Timbaland and Magoo and the rest of Swing Mob's music. Welcome to Our World  was actually the first album I ever bought with my own money, mainly because my older sister had all the classics.
I understand that you are working in the education system, working with young children, as you discussed from our previous interview of a few years back. What kinds of struggles do you deal with in your work? What are your experiences working with children like?
So, in my current job I work with college access, as we place advisers who are recent graduates from higher education institutions in partner high schools to serve primarily first-generation students. In the nine years prior to that I worked directly with at-risk youth in Michigan, D.C., and Brooklyn. It's a definite change because I'm no longer on the "front lines" (what we refer to as direct service) and I don't get that face-to-face interaction unless I'm doing my hip-hop classes, teaching students how to read and write.
The teaching aspect is so fun because these kids are literally all better than us — at least at that age. It reminds me of how today's athletes are so far ahead because the facilities are better, the technology is deeper, and the game tape is massive. How could these kids not be great with all the history in rap 41 years deep in the game? Regardless if they make the type of music I personally love, the skill set is there.
The struggles are wide dealing with marginalized populations though. The hardest part has always been students dying or doing long stretches in prison, where you can see their potential and intelligence doesn't outweigh the consequences based on bad decisions they've made. I'm by no means a savior, and I work hard to separate myself from those outcomes, but it always leaves me wondering what could've gone differently for those students and how I could've helped a bit more.
On the flip side, I have one student I was privileged to see graduate from college, with two degrees... and I was able help another get to college. I could not be more proud of them both. I always celebrate those wins, but really my prayer is centered around any young person I've worked with, because there's always a chance with the youth to be better before it's too late. I just want to throw them the oops they need to score!