When Willow Smith was 3 years old, she accompanied her mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, on tour with her metal band, Wicked Wisdom. It later turned out to be a crash course for Willow in letting loose — and learning to take up space in a genre that isn’t historically welcoming of Black women.
Her mother receiving death threats and having objects thrown at her while performing onstage showed Willow what kind of woman, and artist, she wanted to be someday. By the time Willow was 12, she shaved her head in rebellion of continuing her first tour — ironically named after her 2010 pop breakthrough, “Whip My Hair,” which reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song’s viral success is what scored Willow — who was born and raised in Los Angeles by Pinkett Smith and father Will Smith — a recording contract with Roc Nation that same year. But instead of cranking out more hits, she stopped releasing music until 2014, when she returned with her experimental R&B debut EP, 3. She followed it up with her 2015 introductory album, Ardipithecus, and released her next two full-lengths (2017’s The 1st and 2019’s Willow) on both Roc Nation and her brother Jaden Smith’s imprint, MSFTSMusic.
While it’s clear that Willow has always possessed a punk sensibility, she’s now channeling that outlook into her music, as evidenced by her latest single, “Transparent Soul,” featuring blink-182’s Travis Barker. As Roc Nation co-president Shari Bryant says, “This is not new to her, this is true to her.”
As the lead track off the artist’s upcoming fourth album, Lately I Feel Everything (out July 16), “Transparent Soul” previews Willow’s vision of pop-punk coming soon — and so far, it’s paying off. The single has raked in 35.7 million global on-demand streams through June 9, according to MRC Data, and became Willow’s first Hot 100 entry, debuting at No. 87, since 2011 (with “21st Century Girl”). It also became her first song to climb Billboard’s rock and alternative charts, reaching No. 2 on Rock Streaming Songs. “This is a space that she’s going to own over time,” says Bryant. “It’s so authentic, and that aligns with what punk music represents: It’s all about feeling your confidence.”
Even so, Willow questioned how to navigate the sound at first, considering her vocal training was rooted in pop and R&B. She spent 2020 exploring indie rock on her collaborative album, The Anxiety, with fellow artist and rumored boyfriend Tyler Cole — which they released after locking themselves in a box right as the pandemic began for a 24-hour performance piece — and dropping an EP with mantra meditation musician Jahnavi Harrison. But as the world started to reopen, Willow craved to create, quite literally, outside of the boxes in which she felt confined.
“It was me coming to a point where I just said ‘eff it’ and wanted to have fun,” she says. “This album is the most I’ve let myself loose.” Adds Carly Mann of Willow’s management firm, Three Six Zero: “It’s a bold new step in Willow’s musical journey.”
As it happens, it’s a step into a poppunk aesthetic that’s having quite the resurgence with non-rock artists taking the lead, creating the perfect opportunity for Willow to make noise in the space. Rappers 24kGoldn and Machine Gun Kelly employed guitar-driven melodies on their recent hits — the former’s “Mood” (featuring iann dior) topped the Hot 100 for eight weeks, and the latter’s Tickets to My Downfall became the first rock album to crown the Billboard 200 in over a year. But even as the genre becomes more accepting of artists who didn’t necessarily come up in the format, it’s increasingly clear that it largely remains a fraternity of rockers.
“In the guitar world, it’s heavily dominated by white men,” says Willow, “and I just wanted to come in and f--k it up. I hope to see more women of color rocking out and playing guitar and bass, and I want to be their cheerleader. I want to be in their service.”
For the album’s other high-profile features, Willow personally reached out to rapper Tierra Whack and the punk-pop princess herself, Avril Lavigne. “That’s how bad she wants it,” says Bryant. “Everything about this project and how it came together is all Willow.”
Her collaboration with Lavigne, “Grow,” provides the perfect bookend to the icon’s 2013 single “Here’s To Never Growing Up” by flipping the genre’s ideology of being forever young into a forward-looking message about one’s maturity. Elsewhere, “Don’t Save Me” showcases Willow’s instrumental savvy, mixing guitar chugs with electric bass.
“I wanted to let other people of color know that we should be able to do whatever we want; we should be able to scream and growl and shred,” says Willow. “And with the history of what we’ve had to endure in this country, I think that rock is a pretty perfect place to do that.”