In certain ways, the ultimate dream for a rapper is to reach a point where they can stop rapping altogether. Whether it’s branching out into business ownership, fashion design, or movie stardom, there’s never been a shortage of successful hip-hop artists eager to trade on their poetic capital for extra-poetic ends. Shaping words is hard work, and there’s only so much one artist can say; the retirement age in rap is low, and it’s important for even the most gifted to have a backup plan.
Along with Ice Cube and Ludacris, Will Smith is a member of that rare mini-caste of rap musicians who seamlessly converted themselves into marquee actors. Smith’s last album, Lost and Found, dates all the way back to 2005, and for good reason: Being an A-list star in Hollywood films is far more preferable (and profitable) than toiling over rap, especially when Smith was never known for being particularly nice as a lyricist. Smith’s material and delivery are best described as unfailingly lightweight and relentlessly polite, and for good reason. Both in his late-’80s/early-’90s work with DJ Jazzy Jeff and his post–Fresh Prince solo career, being the squeaky-clean guy with a quick smile and an easy flow was a lucrative gig. While rap, hard-core, or commercial or (increasingly) both, trended toward dour treatments and heavy material, Smith was content to float above it all, his cheery demeanor doubling as a golden parachute. He didn’t have to cuss in his raps to sell records; in fact, not cussing in his raps was precisely why he racked up such huge sales. Middle-class parents afraid of rap at large were as happy to fork over tens of millions of dollars to hear Big Willie Style and Willennium as they were glad to purchase hundreds of millions’ worth in Independence Day and Wild Wild West tickets, proving yet again that, given the right business plan and a basic measure of charm, it really, really pays to be corny.
So Will Smith ascended into the unrealest reaches of the Hollywood Hills, there to do a handful of films, each for enormous payouts, and raise his children in an environment of impossible luxury and Scientological fervor; everyone assumed, when they thought of him at all, that he would remain there forever. But 2017 hasn’t been known for being predictable. It wasn’t all that shocking when the former Fresh Prince dropped his first new music in 12 years: Since October 6, his single “Get Lit” has been available on iTunes and Spotify.
For those wondering why they haven’t heard it, let alone heard of it, there’s an easy answer: It’s bad. But to be fair, it’s bad in an unexpected way. Diehard Smith fans have long been clamoring for a reunion with DJ Jazzy Jeff, but no one was expecting their reunion to take the form of an EDM production and EDM lyrics. “My people, good before evil, Big Will the sequel ’bout to get lit,” Smith raps over an unexceptional pummeling bass beat and skittering synth line; other gems include “We ain’t party Megatrons, we ’bout to transform and get lit” and “Get fly with it, all up in the sky with it.” You can practically imagine a cluster of glow sticks flailing listlessly in accompaniment. No one knows why “Get Lit” exists; its presence serves as a reminder that (a) anything is possible and (b) the vast majority of things are laughably pointless.
Like Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” Smith’s single (also an ill-advised late-period rebrand) plumbs new depths of uncoolness for no apparent reason. Unlike with Swift, nothing seems to have goaded Smith into making “Get Lit.” There’s none of Swift’s sense of rancor, no sense of being unjustly besieged, no simpering sub-retorts; it’s just a hollow monument to one insanely rich man’s unfathomable caprice. There’s no way to directly enjoy “Get Lit,” but its absolute lack of substance makes it ideal material for abstract, philosophical appreciation in a way that Swift’s single, burdened by petty but recognizably human concerns, never could be. The total absurdity of “Get Lit” renders it not only hilarious, but, in a way, the most profound music Will Smith has ever made. Its vacancy is so pure that it verges on the existential, the mystical — perhaps even the divine, for only a god could be capable of such perfect lack of meaning. It’s easy enough to wish, in the wake of Will Smith’s return to music, that he return, as soon as possible, to not making music. But in truth, we should hope for even more music like “Get Lit,” a song that teaches listeners to laugh at the abyss until our vision of the world begins to change.