If you’d told me Jaden Smith would have one of the biggest and best rap releases of 2017, I wouldn’t have disbelieved you, but I’d have been skeptical as all hell.
That isn’t to say that Will and Jada’s son isn’t talented or that I wouldn’t believe he had an extremely capable debut album in him. It’d be a very near thing between that and a complete sonic mess, informed as much by his absurd reflections on society and sheltered upbringing as by his father’s sharp insights and clever humor on early Fresh Prince & Jazzy Jeff appearances. So far, Jaden’s biggest moments have involved meme-ready reactions and a goofy streak that tends to be far more surreal-leaning and absurdist than his pop’s easygoing wit and charm.
The balance could have been easily split, however unfairly, between the mainstream brilliance of Big Willie Style and bumbling heavy-handedness of 2005’s Lost And Found, which had its moments but mostly proved how out-of-touch 40-year-old dad Will Smith had become 20 years removed from “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
To better compare those extremes in terms to Jaden Smith’s own creative output, there was an even chance he’d deliver the audio equivalent to either The Karate Kid or After Earth; it could either be serviceable ,if a bit awkward, or a complete disaster.
Instead, he somehow defied all expectations and created an innovative, sonically adventurous display of experimental hip-hop that shakes up the conventional approach to rap and R&B and embeds itself in hip-hop canon as one of the most original albums of the year.
First things first, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way; by no means is Smith a Big L-level flame spitter. He doesn’t have the greatest rap voice and there’s at least one “chillin’ like a villain,” as well as a fair share of faux-deep bars that sound merely “meh” once you get past the initial wow factor of the densely-packed, almost cluttered rhyme schemes. It’s very clear that as a songwriter and a lyricist, Smith is not only young but perhaps also a bit too far-sighted to focus too intently on the nitty-gritty details of song construction.
But that’s a minor quibble and one that is easily and readily swept away by the narratively and stylistically expansive wave that constitutes Syre‘s musical underpinnings. It seems too easy, almost cliche, to reference the opening sequence of songs, but they are the best example of just what Smith is aiming to do here.
That four-song suite sets the tone, musically, lyrically, and conceptually. Breaking down such a complex introductory sequence songs seems daunting, which is mind-blowing in itself. How could a kid just 19-years-old and born into an utterly insane amount of privilege have such a powerful grasp of his musical identity and know exactly where he wants to go with huge concepts and strange sounds?
“B” opens with a tinkling music box, complete with winding key and ticking mechanism and a tearing, melancholy duet from Smith’s sister Willow and Pia Mia, before slowly building and transforming into a pounding, industrial-trap echo chamber, and then, blending into the next track “L.”
“L” slows halfway through, while Jaden ruminates on police brutality and social injustice in contrast with his own intense privilege, lowering into a whispering, almost spiritual breeze. Again, here is a kid who was born into not just money, but $25 million a movie money. He could easily have gotten lost in the fog of wealth, refusing to deal on any level with the real world outside of Hollywood’s bubble, but he earnestly if awkwardly attacks the subject concisely in the first real song of the album. That’s a risk, and he not only takes it willingly but with the sort of aplomb you expect from someone who starred in big-ticket blockbusters before he could actually go see a PG-13 movie without his father in tow
“U” opens with a pained howl from Smith, interpolated with a sample from Lido’s “Falling Down” before whipping off into a rapid-fire, passionate spatter of shouted raps which dissolves into a sung-rap verse that painfully recounts the emotional turmoil of a poorly-planned romance, speeding back up into a screaming hook that repeats the refrain of “chaos, chaos.” Smith sounds like he’s been through more than could possibly be contained in his short 19 years, yet sounds completely convincing, like an old soul reincarnated as a rich actor’s son with all the memories of his prior life intact.
“E” is back to social examination, now with a live band feel and a lamentation that “Man, I swear the city hate the melanin / Just how I hate the weapons that they sellin’ ’em.” The motifs introduced in the prior three parts of the suite reiterate through the background, as simply played keyboard melodies and soft rock riffing. This kind of collection-minded musical construction isn’t totally rare within hip-hop, but to think how easy it would be for Smith to simply commission 14 beats and just rap over them, instead of creating a singular artistic vision and sticking to it throughout proves just how genuinely committed to the final product he is; this isn’t just a whim — he actually cares.
And then, suddenly, the album starts in earnest, with Smith trading serious-minded battle raps with ASAP Rocky, over “Breakfast”‘s creeping beat, boasting and flexing his bizarre choice of wedding attire on “Batman,” and comparing himself to George Jefferson on a song of the same name. Each song contains tight, slithering boom bap reminiscent of J Dilla or early Neptunes, but just as easily as he slips into the boastful persona of these songs, he lilts over the hazy folk guitar of a more introspective piece like “Lost Boy.” There is an unexpected versatility to Smith’s delivery which speaks to the contrasting values that surround him. Yes, he’s the product of a massively successful movie star pairing, but those movie stars come from humble beginnings which ground them and creep into Jaden’s music as a disarming humility.
Along the way, Smith sprinkles in spoken-word interludes that detail his slightly off-kilter viewpoint of his life so far, using the Syre character — Syre is his middle name — as a third party avatar to address his woes, hopes, failings, and victories. While it all has potential to come off cheesy, he leans into the risk, giving it weight and forcing the listener to take him at face value, awkward teenage philosophizing and all.
While Syre is not perfect, it makes up for its imperfections with ambition; while it is plenty awkward, it makes up for its awkwardness in earnestness and a sense of adventure. It swings wildly from whimsy to introspection, from melancholy to irrationally confident. It’s the album you’d never expect from someone who has been told his whole life that he can do anything he wants and given the means and access to actually do it, but it’s exactly that album at the same time.
It’s Jaden Smith’s acute awareness that he is one of the rare few who can be himself and build the self he wants to be, tempered by the knowledge of all the eyes on him that makes the album work more than anything. Syre is a little self-conscious, but it’s also defiant. It’s a practice in the many, many contradictions of Jaden Smith, a perfect autobiography for a descendant of royalty.
Syre is out now via Roc Nation Records. Get it here.