Charlie Smarts: We Had A Good Thing Going
M.E.C.C.A. Records, Jan. 20
Though it’s probably best known for unleashing Rapsody on the world, Raleigh’s Kooley High, through lineup changes and cross-country moves, has been a consistent fixture in North Carolina hip-hop for more than a decade. It’s built its rep on clever wordplay, immersive production, and the vocal interplay of emcees Tab-One and Charlie Smarts. Tab slings verbal acrobatics and head-spinning rhyme schemes; Charlie brings finesse and emotion.
But with so much of Kooley High’s acclaim coming from the group dynamics, it’s easy for individual strengths to get lost in the mix. That’s why Charlie Smarts’ debut full-length record, We Had a Good Thing Going, is a strong statement. It’s a self-aware release that posits Smarts as a vulnerable yet confident artist who’s ready to forge new paths.
On album opener “My Love,” Smarts sets the tone by parading his love for Kooley High and Inflowential while projecting greater heights to come. “Shit changed, it don’t matter to me,” he nonchalantly spits atop a sparse beat, and turbulent change is a motif that plays out across the album.
We Had a Good Thing Going is an aural representation of an artist at an intersection. On “Middle of the Road,” Smarts weighs his need for constant improvement with feelings of inertia in life. “Penthouse” takes a longer view on coming “a long way from mama’s basement” to his aspiration of “living in the sky.”
But “Penthouse,” like much of the album, is densely packed with societal as well as personal topics. Against lofty goals of luxury living, Smarts weighs concerns of consumerism and affordable housing, struggles with student loans, and hereditary alcoholism.
While the transparency draws you in, Smarts’ flow alone is enough to show how hungry he is. He brilliantly weaves extensive internal rhymes to create sonic tension, making his earworm hooks stand out even more. On lead single “Butter on My Biscuit,” he latches onto a rhyme scheme that spills across verses, using clever line breaks and near-rhymes to string it along.
We Had a Good Thing Going has all of the strengths you’d expect from Smarts’ work in groups: clever punch-lines, Southern swagger, and pop-culture references between memorable choruses. But his ability to pull back that playful curtain and let us peek into his desires and anxieties is what makes this such a rewarding solo effort.
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