The Smith Family Legacy Was Built for Willow

Willow Smith gets to do what she does in part because she is Willow Smith, but her music wouldn’t stick if it weren’t for the sense that she’s coming into her own as a unique singer and an honest and self-effacing songwriter. Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

The Smith kids seem preternaturally based, like callbacks to a storied brand of sophisticated bohemian. They make cool art; they’ve long questioned modern social mores; they push philanthropic and philosophical causes; and they leave us the hell alone. It’s a lifestyle doubtlessly born out of wealth; Willow and Jaden are second-generation Hollywood stars, scion of Will and Jada, multihyphenate performers whose résumés in television, film, and music stretch back over 30 years. Jada is a talented actress, a natural talk-show host, and a sometime rocker whose metal band Wicked Wisdom is one of few in history to have shared stages with Britney Spears and Tool. Will’s journey as a sitcom lead, chart-topper, and A-list action-film star gained momentum after he earned his first gold record for the 1988 rap hit “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” off his and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s He’s the Rapper, I’m the DJ album. Will must’ve meant business in that song: Seeing a family of his own creation now interact on their Facebook Watch series Red Table Talk, you get the sense that there is a painstaking honesty and mutual respect between them, that these parents truly do want to know the children they’ve raised. (The year in increasingly worrying Chet Hanks gaffes goes to show how being raised in the spotlight can go another way for celebrity kids; you can be the kind of free spirit that appears at high-profile events in a Batman costume, or you can be the kind that goes public with conspiratorial COVID-19 anti-vaxxer rhetoric.)

Willow Smith is an oddity in music, and not just because of the pedigree. She’s only 20, but she has been releasing music on Roc Nation for over a decade. 2010’s headbanger “Whip My Hair” yielded a platinum RIAA certification for the singer-songwriter just after her tenth birthday, and if she wanted, she could have pursued big child-acting roles like her older brother, who fronted the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid and also starred alongside Will in The Pursuit of Happyness and After Earth. Willow took a few roles but appeared to lose interest. She turned down the lead in the Annie remake Jay-Z and her father were producing in 2011 (a gig picked up by Quvenzhané Wallis), joined Kendall Jenner’s modeling agency, and also got to work on new music, making gorgeous, emotionally intelligent songs that — unlike Jaden’s genial, star-studded projects, which express his exquisite taste and unfailing understanding of what’s hip in mainstream rap but also leave you wishing for more than imitation — feel unmoored from anything else her label is selling. Willow’s tracks feel less like formal songs and more like private conversations, diary entries, and stray thoughts. 2015’s Ardipithecus opens with “Organization & Classification,” where the airy synths you might hear in a Pharrell record mix with a yearning warble as Willow states her platform: “Classification and organization is ruining the minds of our generation”; 2017’s The 1st is full of intense love songs like the gorgeous, orchestral “Boy” and the grungy “Human Leech”; 2019’s self-titled drifts coolly from the psychedelic highs of “Like a Bird” to “U Know,” a mix of jarring melodies and lyrics about Sumerian spirituality and sacred geometry.

It is good but perhaps strange for this stuff to exist on a major label. It’s not overtly commercial. It typically doesn’t impact charts or radio. You could argue that this is a story of great connections paying off. Your average layperson doesn’t have the luxury of honing their craft on Jay-Z’s watch. Artist development is not what it was; talented people lose their deals the minute they become a liability, or when the hit parade disperses. Willow Smith gets to do what she does in part because she is Willow Smith, but her music wouldn’t stick if it weren’t for the sense that she’s coming into her own as a unique singer and an honest and self-effacing songwriter. There’s something there. She’s been whittling her way toward tighter songcraft for the last five years.

You can hear the gains on lately i feel EVERYTHING, Willow’s fourth and best album, a rock album insofar as you can say that any Willow release aligns itself with any one genre. The album is a collection of pop-punk, grunge, shoegaze, and jangle-pop jams, a series of two- and three-minute wonders where a pleasing and seemingly unfussed musical idea is expressed but not overcooked the way the songs on the prior Willow albums occasionally ambled on for four and five minutes, giving a good idea the time it takes to wear on the ears. Working with Tyler Cole, the romantic and creative partner Smith teamed with on last year’s The Anxiety, with assists from Blink-182’s Travis Barker, Willow matches much of the recent spate of pop and hip-hop artists trying out rock moves — see: Justin Bieber’s “Anyone,” Olivia Rodrigo’s “Brutal,” the Kid Laroi’s Fuck Love, or any piece of the last year in Machine Gun Kelly antics — with a record that, unlike some of the others, could sincerely pass for an airtight but unheralded alternative-rock album, one with great riffs and lyrics that cut to the chase and sometimes to the quick. “I need you to tell me when I’m being naïve / ’cause I know I can be,” Smith sings in the mid-album highlight, “naïve.” She drops a bomb on “Glow,” a cut featuring Barker and Avril Lavigne: “No one ever truly knows just who they are / And I feel closer knowing I don’t have to hide my scars.” “Transparent Soul,” a shot of vitriol for an untrustworthy man, channels the frenzy and ferociousness of Riot!-era Paramore; “Lipstick” is a textbook post-grunge banger from the killer start-stop riff down to overwrought visual imagery and the chorus about soaring past your troubles. lately i feel EVERYTHING tries to avoid pastiche, but even in the moments that feel indebted to Willow’s predecessors, this album is still selling plenty of hooks that could stand toe to toe with its OGs.

These songs are focused on overcoming anxiety and self-doubt and learning to love yourself through mistreatment from others. It’s all youthful growing pains, and like Rodrigo in “Brutal,” Smith seems aware this is a passing storm and eager to steel herself. You hear it in the chorus of “Gaslight,” a tune about dumping a manipulator where the singer figures her shit out mid-stride: “I’ll just love me instead.” As often as the lyrics can feel pointed and personal, they can also be unvarnished and unrefined, like eavesdropping on a person’s train of thought and all of the attendant profundities and clichés. (Incidentally, the more precious the writing feels, the more it resembles peak alternative rock.) What lately has that so much in its company lacks is an easy and comfortable queerness. The love interests don’t all have the same pronouns, and the specific capacity in which the singer has been gaslit and mistreated by the subjects of these songs is never spelled out in too much detail, the better to give listeners lyrics to shout at their own antagonists. If you’ve watched enough episodes of Red Table Talk, you know that Willow has spoken candidly about cruel public speculation about her sexuality when she was a child and coming to terms with being bisexual in the shadow of that attention. (And if you also watched her parents publicly wrestle with the “scandalous” ins and outs of their marriage on that same show, it might make sense why Willow keeps the specifics of her life out of consumption.) It feels like growth hearing her delve further into romantic fluidity in her music and foreground the sapphic suggestions in earlier songs like The 1st’s “And Contentment.” It’s possible Willow Smith’s music is just a few key tweaks away from greatness. (Maybe opening for Billie Eilish on the Happier Than Ever world tour next year will provide the necessary spark.)

It feels like the Smith family — in prioritizing the creative versatility expressed both by Will, in his career as a pop-rap superstar and action-movie star with a flair for Oscar bait and big-budget social-media theatrics, and Jada Pinkett Smith, another mainstay in film and television thanks to appearances in A Different World, Menace II Society, Girls Trip, and more, who just this summer won a Daytime Emmy for Red Table Talk — is engaged in a careful push toward more varied opportunities for Black talent in entertainment. Though it’s unclear, as it is when someone like Jay-Z imparts wisdom about generational wealth, how much of the spoils are open to anyone lacking the necessary access, the right surname. The (Smith) kids are all right, anyhow. Maybe it’s just the security that millions can buy, a posh pipe dream. But maybe it’s a net positive having them in the world making things that used to be tough seem easier, living life as if the social structure and expectations binding prior generations no longer exist, modeling a freedom that is possible for more of us somewhere down the line. Time tells.

The Smith Family Legacy Was Built for Willow