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It’s all in the risk

Profile image for By Lucinda Breeding
By Lucinda Breeding
Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo

In January, Dallas (and one-time Denton) rapper D. Smiley was “Young Don,” dropping compact verses over beats, passing a blunt and on the verge of jumping into the hip-hop game feet first, without a safety net and without one single hint of apology.

D. Smiley has a couple of things in common with local hip-hop artists in the Golden Triangle. He doesn’t pretend to be a young pimp creeping in a Bugatti or making it rain dead presidents — he raps about his desires, his work ethic and his talent, all of which are formidable. He writes about the identity crisis that can arise even in the 21st century for a young black man with a white girlfriend of five years and a yen to be part of the “game” (code for the hip-hop business) but who isn’t so thrilled with the one-dimensional demands it makes of its young, talented and driven.

“I’ve been working on this record for eight months,” Smiley said as the release of his first full-length album, Golden Child, Rightful Sinner drew nearer. The record hits the streets on Friday, about three weeks shy of the video for the first single, “Battlefield.”

The song is the clear standout on a record that is led by words and followed by beats. In the “Battlefield” video, the artist appears in two different settings — a shut-down gas station and the wild green banks of a creek. For the most part, Smiley bounces on the balls of his feet as if he were a boxer champing at the bit waiting for that bell to clang. He throws punches and gestures, glaring into the camera. He’s all lyrical promise (“one, two, Smiley’s comin’ for you,” voices rap through the chorus countdown) and rippling six-pack.

Smiley celebrates the release of Golden Child with a bash at Andy’s Bar on Friday.

“The record’s very introspective. You see the world through my eyes,” he said. “This record, you could close your eyes and hear everything from ’88 to ’13. This is all about how time has passed for me. From the struggle to the success. There is a full connection to both of those things, as an artist who is growing, but also a connection from me as an artist in the world.”

Smiley teamed up with producer Exotic Swisha on eight of the 11 tunes, and with producers Jordan Strong, Buffalo Black and King Zel for the remainder. Artist CLV guests on two tracks.

Smiley said he chose his producers carefully.

“Each of them is strong,” he said. “I was really comfortable with all of them. I knew their source and knew mine. I knew they would get the emotional things I was looking for, I was reaching for.”

Some albums are a journal of a single episode or timeframe in an artist’s life. Others are a constellation of the highs and lows, the mundane middles of life. Golden Child is the latter.

Exotic Swisha created “dub” to Smiley’s rhythmic “lub” on the album.

“One thing I wanted was faster raps, and I was able to use faster flows. I used metaphors and double entendres,” Smiley said.

The artist was intent on the words leading the music. He’d write or rap for Swisha, then the two would work the producer’s beats.

“You’re working together to get your point across,” Smiley said. “Sometimes, you’re a little more vulgar, a little more direct. And then there are times when you want to show a little more emotion. I was able to connect with so many different emotions. There are times where you want to touch somebody, times when you want to piss somebody off. I wanted to use a lot of different emotions.”

On “I Said,” D. Smiley and CLV swap verses about the realities that can come with a determination to keep one’s art animate. They grieve the loss of friendships too weak to endure musical success.

The song references D. Smiley’s label, brand and crew called MacBroadz, and the naysayers in D. Smiley’s circle who predicted the project would go belly-up. Macbroadz is still slinging beats, T-shirts and ball caps in Dallas-Fort Worth, and the naysayers can help themselves to a heaping helping of deep-fried crow, as far as Smiley’s concerned.

“Foreva Eva” tips a hat to Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson,” but flips the script from burned baby-daddy lament. Instead, D. Smiley spits steady and fast over Jordan Strong’s lazy loop of doo-wop “oohs.” He cops to being 25 and broke. But that’s if you’re looking at his bank draft and not his life. He pledges to rap “foreva eva” and reminds us all that we are listening to a record made by him and on his terms. Even if someone dismisses Golden Child as a proper demonstration of hip-hop, it’s an inarguable artifact of D. Smiley’s striving.

King Zel and Smiley lifted a short vocal loop by the incomparable Nina Simone on “Yes, I Do,” a sleeper track that both surprises in the maturity of Smiley’s poetry and his ease with meter and metaphor. He details the ways in which he’s had to defend his choices. The first and most uncomfortable is the way racism persists in a so-called post-racist America and the hackles raised all around by his relationship with a white girlfriend (“But y’all don’t wanna hear it ’cause everybody hates the truth/’Cause it’s what sets you free, and gets you locked up, too”).

Zel’s decision to slip Simone’s silky contralto into the beat is a touch of awareness — both musically and culturally — and a shimmer of genius. In “Yes, I Do,” Smiley and Zel reaffirm that rap — like jazz before it — bears the burden of being thought of as too dirty — and too black — for polite society.

But by the time Smiley declares “word is bond!” and promises that his art will never buy out his experiences or his relationships, the listener understands that while this rapper can posture with the best of them, hip-hop is still the province of the pen. You know, that thing that is mightier than the sword.

He connects with the likes of Simone and Gil Scott-Heron, but D. Smiley occupies the here and now.