For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2021 all this week and next. First, a salute to the artist who made the most impressive comeback this year: critically acclaimed pop-punk hitmaker Willow.
After a brief turn in the mainstream as a child star, Willow Smith found a dedicated cult following during the 2010s, thanks to enduring streaming hits such as “Wait a Minute!,” from her 2015 debut album Ardipithecus. Despite her strong following, the L.A. native hadn’t seen major crossover success since the release of her debut single, the pop-rap track “Whip My Hair,” which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November 2010.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2021:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions |Rookie of the Year: Olivia Rodrigo | No. 10: Bad Bunny | No. 9: Dua Lipa | No. 8: Justin Bieber | No. 7: Drake | No. 6: BTS | No. 5: The Weeknd | No. 4: Doja Cat | No. 3: Adele | No. 2: Lil Nas X | No. 1 Taylor Swift
However, 2021 is the year Willow truly cemented herself as a fully-grown artist with front-and-center staying power, a narrative befitting of someone who officially entered legal adulthood in October. After years of toying with psychedelic R&B, neo-soul and sassy pop, followed by a brief hiatus from music to focus on herself and her side endeavors, the adventurous singer was given a nudge to foray into an edgier lane by her mother, actress and frontwoman of the nu-metal band Wicked Wisdom, Jada Pinkett-Smith. (“I think that seeing my mom on stage and how she commanded the music and the band just made me realize that’s what I want to be,” Willow said in an interview with V Magazine. “I want to be that strong woman who is putting it all out there on the stage.”)
With Blink-182 drummer/producer Travis Barker playing a key role in her change of direction, Willow reintroduced herself in April with the ferocious pop-punk single “Transparentsoul.” Despite being relatively new to the rock side of popular music, Willow has long prided herself a rebellious spirit, making this artistic shift feel appropriate. (She shaved her head as an 11-year-old, somewhat ironically, in protest of continuing her 2012 Whip My Hair tour.)
“Transparentsoul” became the singer’s first entry on the Hot 100 in 10 years, peaking at No. 76 in July. It also introduced her to Billboard’s Rock and Alternative charts – including a No. 2 spot on the Rock Streaming Songs chart – and was certified Gold in September. The release of “Transparentsoul” couldn’t have come at a better time, as it fit right in with the massive wave of successful pop-punk-leaning songs released in 2020 and 2021 by acts like Machine Gun Kelly, Yungblud, and Olivia Rodrigo.
A proper album quickly followed the electric single: Lately I Feel Everything was released in July 2021, featuring elements traversing the gamut of alternative rock – pop-punk of course, but also grunge and indie. Not only is Barker a featured drummer on a number of tracks, pop-punk foremother Avril Lavigne accompanies Willow on the introspective, guitar-heavy “Grow,” while rockers Cherry Glazerr and Ayla Tesler-Mabe and rapper Tierra Whack were also noteworthy voices found on the energetic 11-song project.
The effort peaked at No. 46 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and received positive reviews from critics, with many publications praising Willow’s spirited preservation of pop-punk, from her emotive delivery to the blaring, angsty instrumentation. It’s since been named to a number of year-end lists of the best albums by NPR Music, Complex, Uproxx and Billboard. “[Lately I Feel Everything] was me coming to a point where I just said ‘eff it’ and wanted to have fun,” she told Billboard earlier this year. “This album is the most I’ve let myself loose.”
In May, after the release of “Transparent Soul,” Willow was announced as one of the supporting acts for Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever World Tour during select shows in February and April 2022. The on-tour pairing of two young women who are praised for rewriting the traditional rules of music, culture and femininity couldn’t have been made for a better fit – and shortly after, Willow announced her own national headlining tour, titled “LIFE.” But even with the positive response to Lately I Feel Everything and its lead single, it certainly came as a surprise that her most successful single since her pre-teen pop days would be with a song that entirely predated her new punk era.
The ANXIETY, Willow’s collaboration project with close friend and producer Tyler Cole, was released quietly in March 2020, without making much of an initial chart impact. However, during a September promo run for her then-forthcoming Life Tour to support Lately I Feel Everything, the duo performed a live version of “Meet Me at Our Spot,” an indie-leaning, mid-tempo track found on THE ANXIETY which pertains to escaping internal fears in order to “catch a vibe” with that special someone.
After the performance, the song found new legs by going viral on TikTok, becoming a sleeper hit bigger than anyone could have anticipated. “Meet Me at Our Spot” peaked at No. 21 on the Hot 100 in November 2021, making it Willow’s most-successful song since “Whip My Hair.”
Through her insistence on playing by her own rules (and to her own strengths), Willow successfully launched one of the most powerful re-emergences of the past few years, closing out the calendar year as one of the leading voices in contemporary alternative music. Her accomplishments in these genres are crucial, as her very presence disrupts the stereotypical aesthetic of mainstream rock and punk stars.
Particularly during the ‘90s and early-’00s, cis, white, heterosexual men have prevailed as pop-punk’s most prominent representatives. While people of color performing pop-punk is nothing new (such as early-’00s act Fefe Dobson and current pop-punk band Meet Me at the Altar), inclusion in the scene allows for greater accessibility, and Willow’s visibility in particular showcases the growth this style of music has undergone. (Plus, there’s no better outlet than rock music to let out the frustrations that may come with navigating growing up during a pandemic, no less as a Black woman.)
While she’s always appeared to be an advocate of creating whatever art makes her soul soar, Willow’s full-out ownership and acceptance of her authenticity is what makes her comeback that much sweeter. “I can see myself diving deeper and refining my musicianship,” Willow said in a recent NME interview. “Through refining my musicianship, I can execute new genres authentically and with quality. That’s really where I’m trying to be.”
Later today: Billboard names their Rookie of the Year for 2021.