by Philip Price
Last Friday, Will Smith helped usher in what I assume was a whole new level of awareness from American listeners for Colombian band Bomba Estéreo. Appearing on a remix of their single “Fiesta,” The Fresh Prince marked his return to the music scene for the first time in over a decade. “Hip-Hop is aging…gracefully,” said Zane Lowe in a recent interview with Smith on his Beats 1 Radio Show who took the opportunity to talk music with Smith and ran with it. Smith (who just turned 47) acknowledged this fact and brought about the idea of this being the first real experience we’ve had with seeing rappers and people such as himself, Dr. Dre and even Jay-Z (who is now 45) get older and to a point in their lives where we expect them to stop making music, retire from the public eye or at least decline in popularity. It’s anyone’s guess as to how things will go for any individual artist as they continue to surpass the boundaries society sets for them, but let’s face it: as far as music, and rap music specifically, is concerned - people (critics and fans alike) have trivialized Will Smith for some time now.
Will Smith expanded the platform that was rap though. He won the first ever rap Grammy along with DJ Jazzy Jeff for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” and he essentially pioneered the career path that a large portion of rappers have adapted since in that he became not only a music artist, but an actor and a good one with credible projects and credentials to his name. What is no secret is that even Smith’s acting career has hit something of a road block as of late, but the guy (ever the determined strategist) seems perfectly primed to rectify that situation soon. What for? It’s an easy question to ask. We’ll all slide into irrelevance someday, even Will Smith, so why continue to tweak what is already an admirable legacy by continuing to take risks? Why not continue to mold the tinier versions of himself and let them take over the name as he seems so keen to do anyway? I have to imagine it’s the unavoidable drive and desire that powers a man such as Smith who, conceivably, has little more to offer than his charisma, but knows how to utilize it in a hundred different circumstances.
Having been raised in a household where my mother listened to country some of the time and funk or soul most of the time and where my father exposed us more to the likes of ELO and the rising ‘80s hip hop scene I was lucky enough to get an eclectic taste of what the music world had to offer. It was here that The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff made an indelible impression with the likes of “Charlie Mack (First Out of the Limo)," ”Nightmare on My Street“ and “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson.” I say all of this because by 1997 (the year after Smith became a bona fide movie star in “Independence Day”) he had essentially become an icon in my eyes. Not only because I loved everything about “Men in Black,” but because Big Willie Style had just proved he could conquer anything he desired to. At 10-years old my eight year-old brother and I learned the dance sequence from the “Men In Black” video, taught it to our two younger brothers and performed it at as many talent shows as we could find. We did the same with “Wild Wild West” two years later. This helped to launch a life-long affinity for performing and writing music. I love Will Smith and always will pending he doesn’t make a complete U-turn and murder someone, but his value seems lost these days.
Still, Will Smith is considered a modern movie star. The current generation of youth that were being born when “Men in Black,” “Wild Wild West” and “Bad Boys II” were all being released know The Fresh Prince solely for his acting skill. Thanks to the consistent syndication of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” they know he’s been around for a while, but the fact he was an MC first is likely one that alludes many. So why should we be listening to Will Smith, the rapper, now? The man put out three records within the span of six years from 1999-2005 and not too many folks seemed to care then. The combined sales of Willenium, Born to Reign and Lost and Found to date are 3,560,000 which is 6,740,000 less than Big Willie Style’s massive 10,300,000. It’s not really fair to compare the successors of a product to one that came out in an era when Smith could have literally put out the trash and people would have bought it, but it’s interesting to speculate why and how his presence in the hip-hop world dwindled as much as it did in such a short period of time.
Was it the shifting cultural climate from the pure pop machine that Top 40 radio was at the turn of the millennium (one Smith helped re-usher into existence with Big Willie Style) to that of more pop/rock-infused material and the resurgence of hardcore rap that made Smith look soft and unattractive to his once loyal fanbase? Probably. The rocket that the likes of Eminem and Dr. Dre took to the stratosphere in the early 2000′s that propelled other rappers like Ja Rule, DMX, Jay-Z, Method Man, Nas, Outkast, Ludacris and even Nelly to great popularity was one Smith was not welcome on. It’s interesting to go back and listen to the frustration Smith had with his lack of respect in the hip-hop community on Lost & Found. He was somewhere around 36 at the time he made that record and the idea of his legacy seemed to be looming large. Instead, he was left to the movies and he continued to thrive by countering the admittedly awful “Men in Black II” with “Ali” and delivering hit after hit with the aforementioned “Bad Boys II” and then “Shark Tale,” “I, Robot,” “Hitch,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “I Am Legend” and “Hancock.” There was seemingly no way to stop the man who still managed to own a good chunk of the summer box office while expanding his reach into more dramatic, Oscar-worthy material. Then there was “Seven Pounds.” Then there was the four year hiatus. Then there was the obligatory third “Men in Black” film. And then, “After Earth.” Serving as something of a final nail in the coffin, Will Smith, as we’d once known him-was done.
In February 2015 Smith opened “Focus” to $18 million domestically (a far cry from the $43m opening weekend for “Hitch” a decade earlier in the same release date) with a final worldwide total of $158 million on a $50 million budget. It wasn’t a complete turn-around, but it was clearly the beginning of a master plan. If you listened to any or all of Smith’s interview on Beats 1 you’ll learn that “Fiesta” is only the beginning of a new venture into music for The Fresh Prince. You’ll learn, if you didn’t know already, that he is playing Dr. Bennet Omalu in this year’s Oscar-hopeful “Concussion” about the forensic neuropathologist who made the first discovery of CTE, a football-related brain trauma. You’ll also hear more about his first foray into the world of comic book movies with next year’s “Suicide Squad” that will be a major part of the DC Cinematic Universe. You may even hear a tidbit about a new “Bad Boys” film, but what is most interesting is that Smith plans or at least hopes to tour in support of his upcoming record with DJ Jazzy Jeff. Touring has never been something Smith has done, he’s never had time, but that he’s making the time-putting all of his effort into representing this upcoming music in as true a form as he can makes me hope that people give him the respect he’s due in the rap game, because he certainly deserves it and the cultural music climate couldn’t be more primed for a shot of Big Willie’s eternal style.