Fans of Willow Smith often describe her as being an old soul. Observing her work, there’s no doubt it seems far beyond her 20 years. Over her 11-year music career, she has moved fluidly through genres. Whether R&B or spiritual mantras, she brings something unique to the table each time, not least on this, her fourth album, Lately I Feel Everything, which finds her taking on indie rock and punk.
2021 has already seen a revival of pop punk with artists such as Meet Me @ the Altar, girl in red and even Olivia Rodrigo. It is exciting to see Willow among the artists taking the lead. The acronym for the album is ‘LIFE’, which is fitting for the famously philosophical musician. The album features a range of artists who add their unique sounds to the mix: Ayla Tesler-Mabe, Tierra Whack, Cherry Glazer and punk royalty Travis Barker and Avril Lavigne.
It’s clear Willow loves exploring the visual experiences of her albums. For LIFE that meant she streamed a virtual concert last week. The show opens with the energetic first single from the album, ‘t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l‘ ft. Travis Barker. The song is reminiscent of Travis’ own band, Blink-182, and is the perfect introduction to the record. As soon as I heard the adrenaline boosting drums and Willow’s confident lyrics “I don’t fucking know if it’s a lie or if it’s a fact … if you ever see me just keep runnin’ like The Flash” – I was eager to find out what would follow. At only 36 seconds long, next song ‘F**K You’ made me want to shout along. Each track thereafter changed pace, mood and sound, and it made for an unpredictable and immersive listening experience. Between performances, the audience sees snippets of Willow reflecting on her creative process. The album was born from the events of the pandemic, she has said, and the sounds and visuals are powerful representations of the experience.
“There is a medicine in releasing emotions that we often avoid and, at its core, this new album is all about expression”
When Willow started to explore punk, I’ll admit I was nervous. Her debut album with her band The Anxiety, was a good taster into Willow’s exploration into heavier genres. Still, I remained hesitant, mainly because her previous dreamy and spiritual albums resonated with me – I found them healing. But as Willow says in the concert, “More women and people of colour need to play rock and scream and growl, it’s very needed”. There is a medicine in releasing emotions that we often avoid and, at its core, this new album is all about expression. Compared to her previous work, LIFE is louder, more experimental and visceral – yet it will still leave listeners with a fulfilling sense of empowerment. On the day of its release, I had just endured a particularly challenging week: one that made me want to scream. I listened to the album on repeat and felt emboldened to channel my frustrations through the emotional experience this record provides.
Sandwiched between the bubbly ‘Gaslight’ and the soft and reflective ‘naïve’, ‘don’t SAVE ME’ provides the grungiest sound of the album – and also portrays an acute level of vulnerability. Willow sings “I don’t really think that I can do it all alone. But I tell them, don’t save me”. As she articulates in the concert, the song is all about, “knowing you’re going to fail, but not wanting a safety net”. As the daughter of two Hollywood celebrities, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, we can only imagine the expectations society has placed on her from a young age, and whilst this also means she has a bigger safety net, perhaps this sparks even more desire to explore her potential. But even for those of us who don’t share her lived experiences, ‘don’t SAVE ME’ reminds us of the feeling of wanting to test our limitations – even when we don’t think we will succeed – and the strength that comes in doing so.
“Seeing how her mother handled misogynoir as a metal artist, Willow said: ‘I always thought that music was meant for activism'”
Speaking of Willow’s parents, her exploration of rock was influenced by her mother’s metal band, Wicked Wisdom. In fact, she recently paid a beautiful tribute to Jada by performing a song with Wicked Wisdom as part of a mother’s day special for The Red Table Talk. In the show, Willow reflects on how touring with her mother as a kid shaped her perception of music. Even now, we can see how the world treats Black women in spaces that we are not used to seeing them. Seeing how her mother handled misogynoir as a metal artist, Willow said: “I always thought that music was meant for activism”. This sense of activism can be heard in the album’s fifth song, ‘naïve’, though it is softer with a sound that almost numbs the listener, the lyrics and the powerful vocals of the chorus reignite a sense of urgency. When Willow sings, “can you pick us up, we got shot by rubber bullets at a protest in the Bronx”, I realised why the Black community needs more punk and rock lyricists and musicians.
LIFE can be viewed as a farewell to adolescence. Fans have watched Willow Smith grow in the spotlight from a 10-year-old singing about whipping her hair to the now 20-year-old expressing authenticity throughout the emotional spectrum. It is natural to be cringed out by our past selves. But by the end of the concert, Willow shares how fun it is to perform the song that started it all, and how her perception of it has changed” “At the time I didn’t know it was an important thing, I was just expressing my joy.” She explains how she used to want to push herself away from that era, but now she has come to realise that the meanings of her songs have remained the same – it’s just the sound that has changed.