'Source Energy and Universal Truths': Exploring The New Music of Jaden & Willow Smith
The world focused on an outlandish interview, but what about the music the interview was promoting?
It's been a little over a week, and yet, I still can’t get over this.
Jaden and Willow Smith's joint exclusive with the New York Times' T Magazine is difficult to wrap one's head around, because the Smith siblings intended to blow minds with each of the answers in their first Q&A together. From the very beginning of their chat with the Times' Su Wu, when they are asked what they are currently reading -- 14-year-old Willow answers, "Quantum physics. Osho," and 16-year-old Jaden chimes in, "The Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life and ancient texts; things that can't be pre-dated" -- one could envision the Internet chewing up each of their mind-boggling musings and spitting up the most quotable moments on the tablecloth of social media. There was "Because living." There was "prana energy." There was "I have a goal to be just the most craziest person of all time."
That interview with the children of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith was pre-wrapped Web candy, a catalog of statements that were so bonkers, so removed from real life, that you started copy-pasting segments of it into your G-chats before you were halfway through reading it. Want to break the Internet without exposing any flesh? Just assert that you can make time speed up or slow down.
That interview wasn't random, though, at least in terms of its timing: Jaden and Willow each have new music to promote. In late October, Willow Smith released a new EP, 3, and last week, Jaden dropped the Cool Tape Vol. 2. This fact has gotten a little lost because of this interview and its resulting interpretations, and because at this point, no one digests Willow and Jaden's music critically (seriously, do a Google search of "Willow '3' Review," and you'll see a Goodreads page for Ann Brashares' book 3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows). Their music is largely viewed as a byproduct of their eccentric lifestyles, the unrefined rants of overly confident teenagers who wish to "imprint [themselves] on everything in this world," as Jaden put it in that interview. Their commercial aspirations are limited: Both 3 and Cool Tape Vol. 2 were pushed out at no cost over the past month, with nothing resembling a crossover single as potent as Willow's "Whip My Hair" or Jaden’s collaborative single with Justin Bieber, "Never Say Never." By being free and single-free, Willow and Jaden's music has been written off as unimportant, designated to fade away from the memories of all non-obsessives.
And that's unfair, really, because why wouldn't you want to check out the music of the kids behind that interview? Even before sounding off to the New York Times, Jaden and Willow were fascinating pop culture figures, both celebrities with millions of Twitter followers and famous parents who have spent the past few years railing against their predestined fame. Jaden is the star of The Karate Kid remake who could have spent the next five years cashing checks from the Disney Channel set; instead, he has forsaken Hollywood to make weird backpack rap with unknown producers. Willow's trajectory to teen stardom was even easier to foresee, thanks to the undeniable bounce of her first single, "Whip My Hair." As covered in detail here, Willow followed up that single with a bunch of duds before scrapping a planned R&B/pop album, cutting off her hair, bowing out of the Annie remake opening next month and singing "inject my soul with darkness" over a Radiohead sample. Now she's back making music that sounds as far removed from "Whip My Hair" as possible, as she dabbles in murky soul sounds and performs at venues like the FADER Fort at CMJ along with hipster-approved acts like iLoveMakonnen and Ryn Weaver.
The boy from The Karate Kid and the girl from "Whip My Hair" are now unrecognizable, off to find answers to questions that aren't asked in pop music, while still acknowledging the debt they owe to the medium. "I mean, 'Whip My Hair' was a great thing," Willow said in the New York Times interview. "When I look back I think, 'Wow, I did so much for young black girls and girls around the world. Telling them that they can be themselves and to not be afraid to be themselves.' And I’m doing that now but in a whole different way, coming from source energy and universal truths." Unlike so many teen stars, Jaden and Willow have systemically rejected easy-won fame and popularity long before becoming adults. Their new musical projects represent the artistic statements of two individuals who desperately want to be seen as artists.
There are two Jaden Smiths that we are aware of: Past Jaden, who precociously rapped, "Now I got the world in my hand/ I was born from two stars, so the moon's where I land" on Bieber's hit "Never Say Never" when he was 13, and Present Jaden, who shows up to the Kimye wedding in a Batman costume and tweets sentences like "Currently Going Through Customs Even Though I Was Born On This Planet." The Jaden Smith that shows up on his new mixtape, Cool Tape Vol. 2, essentially splits the difference between the two versions. The eight-song mixtape is brimming with the pseudo-philosophy of his Times interview and his Twitter account, but also steers clear of the all-encompassing weirdness of, say, a standard Lil B or Danny Brown verse. "Man this kid is absurd, where'd he get all these words?/ Probably from them stupid books he's reading and prints on his shirts," Smith rhymes on "Young & Reckless," dropping the most defensive pro-reading line since Lady Gaga's "Applause." The rest of the song doesn't really portray the teen rapper as "absurd," though: Jaden talks about landing kickflips, girls texting him trying to find their missing clothes, and being on some "Johnny Depp steez," all over a lurching beat that nicks Madvillain's "Meat Grinder." These are normal things for a 16-year-old to rap about, even for one who tweets "The Sky Is Purple" on occasion.
Jaden does not want to be the family-friendly rap star that his father once was, but he does want to be respected as a credible hip-hop artist; Cool Tape Vol. 2 is a project that craves legitimacy, and Jaden spends most of it channeling legitimate rap artists. While swiping at the low-rolling cockiness of Big Sean, elastic intensity of Chance the Rapper and dead-eyed seriousness of Tyler, The Creator, Jaden begs to be counted among the new-school voices of hip-hop while struggling to find a voice of his own over contemplative beats from his producer pal Christian Rich. Jaden isn't trying to create struggle or hide his privilege -- he mentions his father a lot, and name-checks DJ Jazzy Jeff in the first 30 seconds of the mixtape. But he also squawks like Young Thug and distorts his voice like Kendrick Lamar, all while trying to have his lyrics be deep, man.
At times, he'll toss out a colorful piece of imagery: "I won't be denying my evil deeds/ I'll be at heaven's gate with a crowbar, pryin’/ While they're screaming, 'Don't let this guy in!'" he spits on the 10-minute "Let It Breathe." But then he follows that line with a mishmash of hashtag rap and stoner-isms: "Feeling sorry for myself, Catcher in the Rye-in'/ Then I woke up lying on the beach… Where am I?" Listening to Cool Tape Vol. 2 is a lot like watching Val Kilmer play a long-bearded, pot-growing sherpa in the first season of Entourage. It's a patently ridiculous stunt that you can't stop paying attention to for novelty's sake.
The best song on Cool Tapes Vol. 2 is "PCH," a trippy ballad featuring Willow that feels like a cross between Modern Family and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. This hints at the crazy next level of music that Jaden and Willow are looking for, a metallic alt-pop track about cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway in which Willow sings, "You can come and cry if you come through/ You can hug the sky if you want to," with total sincerity. The words sound just as nuts as they read, but Willow sells them, gliding over the chattering rhythms and letting her voice crack ever so slightly in order to hint at a sorrow underneath her declarations of driver's-permit freedom.
At 14, Willow has a nuanced voice and a more pronounced musical identity than her big brother; she lingers on a lot of the same metaphysical hypotheses as Jaden but handles them more efficiently. Gone are the "Whip My Hair" choruses, as the songs on the 3 EP are even more anti-commercial than those on Jaden's new project. And while she is still improving as a writer, she has arrived at an aesthetic -- woozy R&B music, bursting with uncertainties and injustices -- that comes off, at the very least, as coherent. Willow has described SZA as her "big sister," but her end goal appears to be the Erykah Badu of 2008's New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), a dense, electric soul album with an unflinching female protagonist searching for truth.
"Who are you, who am I/ Who am I, where is me?" Willow asks on the 3 track "8," emoting over snare taps and blinking keyboards without ever drawing the listener into those questions. "Cares," a new single not included on the EP, is more successful, with aching harmonies and a heavy beat helping to showcase Willow's vocal range. She sounds at home in a lilting falsetto while crooning, "Sorry you came back to Earth like this/ You've been to so many places," as well as when she's hunkering down on sing-song chants. At two minutes in length, "Cares" is reminiscent of Frank Ocean's similarly short "Acura Integurl," as a fragment of an idea shiny enough that one hopes to someday uncover where that gem originated. In a recent interview with Fader, Willow described her new music as "rule-breaking" and "pioneering." Willow's 3 EP and her concurrent material is neither of those things, but it's impressive to hear the sea change that the young singer has made in a few years' time.
The best thing that Jaden and Willow Smith have going for them is the same thing that made that New York Times interview so riveting: their unpredictability. Call the Smith siblings out of their minds or disconnected from modern society, but don't call them (or their music) boring -- there are a lot of ultra-media-trained kid stars out there making music with any semblance of edge sanded off by their adult overlords, and Jaden and Willow are not among them. Instead, they are out here talking about prana energy, turning interviews into performance art and making songs that are not yet fully formed but whisper at potential. It's very conceivable that, in a few years, we'll be discussing Willow as a daring voice in R&B and Jaden as a rapper with thoughtful bars. Or who knows? Maybe they ditch music altogether and write a 1,200-word manifesto about Why School Should Be Abolished.
"I think by the time we're 30 or 20, we're going to be climbing as many mountains as we can possibly climb," Willow says at the end of that Times interview. Jaden and Willow may never actually make it to the top of those mountains, but it's encouraging to watch them try already.