Willow Smith’s transition from a kiddie-pop princess to an oddball-R&B teen queen continued on Friday night (Oct. 24), as the 13-year-old singer took the stage at the FADER Fort Presented By Converse at the CMJ Music Marathon at 11:30 PM to unwrap a handful of sumptuous new tunes. Perhaps many of those in attendance at the ultra-hip Brooklyn destination wanted to witness the spectacle of Will Smith’s daughter performing as part of an indie-leaning lineup on Friday, because the crowd was remarkably subdued during the five-song set; that was not a reflection on Smith’s performance, however, which flashed the promise many saw when she began whipping her hair four years ago.
Smith hasn’t had long hair to whip around in years, and showed up at the packed venue with frosted blonde tips and an assertive demeanor. “Hope y’all are feeling the vibes,” Smith declared to a crowd that was largely twice her age, in between earnest hip-hop tracks that sounded like a cross between Mary J. Blige’s “All That I Can Say” and Nicki Minaj’s “Moment 4 Life.” After the first song, Smith brought out her friend SZA for a duet, and she bounced along and spiraled off some impressive melismas as the R&B singer stood proudly next to the young artist.
“Literally, she is 13,” SZA intoned at the end of the track, motioning to Smith. “I want to remind you she’s literally the future. You’re looking at the future onstage!”
For the next song, Willow invited another special guest to the stage: her 16-year-old brother Jaden Smith, who spat rhymes and spun around the makeshift stage while sporting a black hoodie on which the word “WILD” had been scrawled in white. Willow’s brother would later return for the set-closing “Whip My Hair,” swinging his braids around to make up for his sister’s lack of locks and riling up an audience that had been largely asleep during the low-key, generally splendid performance.
The FADER Fort appearance precedes a new Willow Smith EP, 3, that’s due out Nov. 10 and will likely display the singer’s approach to thoughtful neo-soul. Following the performance on Friday night, the showcase ended with surprise performer Cam’ron, who tore into mainstream hits like “Oh Boy” and “Hey Ma” as well as fan favorites “Get ‘Em Girls” and “I Really Mean It.”