Willow Smith's Disappearing Act, And Why 'Whip My Hair' Wasn't A Fluke

Willow Smith

Getty Images

Why is the 12-year-old artist singing "Inject my soul with darkness"? Pop Shop takes a closer look.

Last February, one week after Willow Smith dropped out of the starring role of Marcy Media (which is run by Jay-Z) and Overbrook Entertainment's big-budget film remake of "Annie," mega-star Will Smith was surprisingly candid about his daughter's reasoning. When Willow's departure was announced, Overbrook preposterously declared that the 12-year-old was now too old for the role of the singing, smiling orphan ("Willow was nine years old when we started developing this project, and has since grown out of the role," read a statement), ignoring the fact that Willow Smith is Will Smith's daughter, and if Will Smith's daughter wants to star in a new version of "Annie," she probably will, whether she's nine or 90. But in a week's time, the Smith patriarch was disregarding the role of Father Time in Willow's decision, and telling an audience at Philadelphia's Temple University why Willow was really a no-go for the project.

"Willow was supposed to be doing 'Annie.' We got Jay-Z to do the movie, got the studio to come in, and Willow had such a difficult time on tour with 'Whip My Hair' and she said, 'You know Daddy, I don't think so,'" the elder Smith recalled. "And I said, 'Baby, hold up!' I said, 'No, no, no, listen, you'll be in New York with all of your friends and Beyonce will be there. You will be singing and dancing.' And she looked at me and said, 'Daddy, I have a better idea. How about I just be 12?'"

Hanging out with Beyonce and all of your friends in New York City sounds like a really fun way to spend time -- throw in "singing and dancing," and you've got a deal that's nearly impossible to pass up. But Willow Smith did indeed pass it up, partially because she wanted to be 12, partially because she had a difficult time touring behind "Whip My Hair," and partially because Willow is not her brother, Jaden. Along with starring in the 2010 remake of "The Karate Kid" and next to his dad in this summer's sci-fi blockbuster "After Earth," the 14-year-old has forged a sunny pop-rap career, highlighted by a verse on his pal Justin Bieber's "Never Say Never" remix as well as a re-working of Foster The People's "Pumped Up Kicks." Over the past three years, Jaden Smith has developed an ambidextrous charm as a harmless hip-hop artist; he's got a springy flow in which to flaunt his boasts about "sipping on a soda and chilling with a hottie," and as his music video for last year's "The Coolest" demonstrates, he's not afraid to mug for the camera with the same likable gangliness his dad did 25 years ago.

Meanwhile, his younger sister has uneasily backed away from the spotlight thrust upon her with "Whip My Hair," to a point in which her father had to awkwardly admit that she passed up on "Annie" because she just didn't want to do it. Willow Smith is still making music, but it's pitch-black and carries little commercial aspiration -- which seems just fine with her. Could there have been a clearer sign that the tween singer behind "Whip My Hair" wants nothing more to do with that song than when she shaved her head in February 2012?     

It's been two and a half years since "Whip My Hair" was released to iTunes on Oct. 26, 2010, on the eve of its singer's 10th birthday. A debut album on Roc Nation did not follow, despite receiving tentative release dates as far back as spring 2011. The planned full-length, titled "Knees and Elbows," had producers and songwriters like Tricky Stewart, The-Dream, Jim Jonsin and Ester Dean attached. Omarr Rambert, music director/A&R executive for Overbrook Entertainment (which manages Smith), told Billboard in early 2012, "This album is like a gumbo of R&B, pop and rock. It's pretty much all the music that inspires Willow." That gumbo is not likely to be served up any time soon, if ever.

None of this would be very consequential if "Whip My Hair" hadn't been such a huge hit, earning 1.6 million downloads since its 2010 release according to Nielsen SoundScan and peaking at No. 11 on the Hot 100 chart. The song reached pop-culture ubiquity long before U.S. listeners strung the words "Carly," "Rae" and "Jepsen" together: Bruce Springsteen covered "Whip My Hair" on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," a "Sesame Street" version that mashed up the song with "I Love My Hair" blew up on YouTube, and its own music video -- with Smith parading around a "1984"-esque colorless compound, liberating the tween masses with a simple flick of her neck -- is invitingly cartoonish, and has earned 88 million YouTube views. And, like "Call Me Maybe," "Whip My Hair" is an excellent pop song in its own right, relying on a simple hook, simpler dance move and the tossed-off charisma of its performer (also worth noting: that handclap-driven breakdown is genius on its own). The song was un-ironically embraced by the pop music community, which lobbed Rihanna comparisons toward it and hastily wondered if that Smith family reign just won't let up.     

When "Whip My Hair" was released, a 9-year-old Smith expressed an excitement to get started on a full-fledged musical career. "I wanted to make a difference now, because I wanted to be big and famous like my mommy and daddy and help people," she said in an interview with the Associated Press. So, the machine lurched forward: Smith performed "Whip My Hair" on "Ellen" in November, then on "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve" to ring in 2011, and then signed on to open for Bieber on his U.K. tour in March 2011. Word of an album began to surface, and in February 2011, a new single, "21st Century Girl," was released, with a music video quickly following. It's worth noting that these events occurred while Smith was 10 years old -- usually a time for learning about multiplication, not multiplying your television appearances as demand grows for new music.

Seven months elapsed between the release of "21st Century Girl" and her next single, the Nicki Minaj-assisted "Fireball" -- an understandable gap for a pre-teen to live and grow and learn, but one that brought her a full year removed from the release of "Whip My Hair." "People have to remember she's a child and still has to have a child's life," said Jukebox, who produced "Whip My Hair," in October 2011. "She's been touring with Justin Bieber, so she just got back in [the studio] two-three weeks ago. Hopefully, the album will be out later this year."

While "Whip My Hair" was light and organic -- the debut single from an artist that, despite her lineage, didn't have any real musical expectations at such a young age -- "21st Century Girl" and "Fireball" sound heavily manufactured, as if they were created on an pop music assembly line instead of in a studio. Smith squeezes in flashes of personality, but she's either being weighed down by gaudy proclamations of her own individuality, listless production or, in "Fireball's" case, "Street Fighter" references by an out-of-place Minaj. Both songs earned a fraction of "Whip My Hair's" YouTube audience, and while "21st Century Girl" placed at No. 99 on the Hot 100, "Fireball" didn't even chart. They are both utterly forgettable, and failed to set up "Knees and Elbows" -- at the time, saddled with an April 2012 release date -- in a meaningful way. Explaining the album title in December 2011, Smith said, "Everybody falls down and scrapes their knees and elbows but they eventually get back up." After that, Smith got rid of her hair, and released the song "I Am Me" in July 2012. 

Unlike any of the ostentatious singles she had previously released, "I Am Me" is Smith's first stab at self-expression in a slower, more lyrical structure. "People don't like the way I dress, or where I am at… Your validation is just not that important to me," Smith shrugs over a few truncated piano flourishes. The song is supremely earnest and not all that cohesive, but more important is its music video, which finds the 11-year-old skateboarding through Washington Square Park while wearing a bag yellow shirt with white polka dots and a bowler hat. Here is the music video's message: Willow Smith has started not to care about what anyone else thinks about her, and she will skateboard through Washington Square Park with a bowler hat on as long as she damn well pleases. "I am free! I am free! I am free!" she exclaims in the song, as visions of the singer gleefully pouring gasoline on the mess that was "Fireball" dance through the listener's head.

But the lightly dramatic "I Am Me" was just the beginning of Smith's voyage away from "Whip My Hair": "Sugar and Spice," tweeted out by the singer last January, is a disturbing ballad that snatches, of all things, the rhythm from Radiohead's "Codex." And "disturbing" is not too harsh a word: when a 12-year-old is singing "Inject my soul with darkness," it might be time to search for a happy-go-lucky new lead for "Annie" (Smith dropped out of the role weeks after the song's release). The self-released song is at once defensive ("Take a swing at me, I'll fight/To the death, my light is bright") and helpless ("The monsters under my bed keep making noise, and I, I just want silence, silence"), the sound of an artist trying on a dark new cloak and liking the color. For those who have been following Smith online -- seeing her ridiculously sullen expression on her official site; reading her call Bane, the villain from "The Dark Knight Rises," her "favorite new person" on Twitter -- the moodiness of "Sugar and Spice" isn't shocking. For casual fans who only know "Whip My Hair," however, "Sugar and Spice" is a resentful slap in the face -- simply for being a casual fan, it seems. 

Here's the thing, though: "Sugar and Spice" is pretty great. Unlike the awkward "I Am Me," the song possesses poignant lyrical passages, especially from a 12-year-old: "I sat in front of the TV screen/Sad he's always screaming at me/They want to puncture me and then wonder why I bleed?" Smith sings, as her voice tails off into the darkness. The performance is nuanced and captivating, with Smith understanding the subtleties of the composition rather than attacking every note as if it were her last, like on "I Am Me." For the first time since "Whip My Hair," pop fans can see what Smith can become someday: a multifaceted performer with more attitude than fear.

That "someday" might not come for years, which is perfectly fine and, frankly, preferred. Smith has already been a "Next Big Thing" at the age of nine, and after multiple attempts to recapture the magic of "Whip My Hair," it appears to be time for her to slip away from sales pressures and, as she put it, "just be 12." But "Sugar and Spice," while a pointedly angry song, is a terrific sign for things to come, and may signal a much more promising lane for Smith to inhabit than any number of "Annie" remakes. "I'm really learning through Willow the necessity that we have to snap ourselves back and refocus on the emotional needs of the people that we love," Will Smith told the Temple University crowd in February. "Someone's emotional needs can be very, very different from your dreams and what you think they should be doing and where they are supposed to be."

Willow Smith's needs may have replaced the world-beating dream she had in 2010, but sometimes, those dreams can wait.