With the seemingly endless supply of new rap talent cropping up week after week, all trying to become the “next big thing” in hip-hop, it’s easy to overlook even the most familiar names — even when those names are familiar because they belong to hip-hop royalty. Within the last few weeks, during an outright glut of important albums from some of the biggest names in rap, some of the best releases may not have been from the rappers you immediately think of when you see the names Smith, Harris, and Joiner.
While astute followers of rap may recognize those as the government surnames of Will Smith, T.I., and Xzibit, the three releases in question actually belong to Jaden Smith, Domani Harris, and Tre Capital, the songs of these already established, famous rappers. And though they could all have easily traded on the instantly recognizable brands associated with each of their superstar fathers, Tre, Domani, and Jaden have all insisted on making their own names and forging their own paths to hip-hop stardom, outside of their parents’ towering shadows.
Of the three, Jaden is perhaps the most well-known, although Domani and Tre’s profiles have raised significantly over the past few years. Tre was once nearly recognized by XXL for its popular Freshman cover in 2016, but came up short in the new fan voting to Atlanta newcomer Lil Yachty. All three young rappers recognize that they’ve been born with outsized privilege, while also acknowledging that’s not always an advantage when it comes to hip-hop.
They haven’t been the only hip-hop sons who’ve tried to earn their own shine separate from their parents; Diggy and JoJo Simmons both struggled to garner attention for their own musical endeavors outside of Rev Run’s orbit (despite Diggy’s music being really, really good), while O’Shea Jackson Jr. hasn’t been seen spitting a rap since the 2010 BET Father/Son Cypher, opting for a career in Hollywood playing his dad Ice Cube in the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton instead. Other rappers’ sons like King Combs, (Diddy), Droop-E (E-40), Sun God (Ghostface), Cory Gunz, and Lil Eazy-E have all had varying degrees of success, while the original hip-hop son, Romeo Miller still hasn’t given up following Master P’s footsteps, but has garnered more success in reality TV than in music.
Unfortunately, for rap kids like them, hip-hop is the culture of the underdog. It’s all about making something from nothing, overcoming adversity, hustling your way out of the projects to become a slumdog millionaire. When your name is as instantly recognizable as these three, however, that status can work against you as they must not only work to overcome the audience’s preconceived — and sometimes unfair — biases, but also live up to a standard that’s been previously set by the work that delivered their comfortable upbringing in the first place.
Tre’s latest studio album, Hero out now via Stem, is an eclectic hodgepodge of influences that includes his experiences with life and love, the Lakers, and Japanese anime — subjects that seem a far cry from his dad Xzibit’s pimp narratives and harrowing tales from the hood. Rap fans have come to expect the latter as a prerequisite for the average rapper’s lyrical toolkit, yet Tre instead wants to redefine the makings of a “hero” in the context of our modern fascination with fame and fortune, while impressing us with dazzling feats of wordplay and his “Blue Eyes White Dragon Flow.”
“We don’t have people flying around in capes,” he says, “We don’t have superheroes. Your hero could be your uncle that did 15 years in prison, but he came to your basketball games. There’s this realistic version that needs to be applied. I just want to make music that matches that meaning.” He says that his dad is all the way with it, even if the audience might not be. “People are so focused on appearance they don’t really pay attention to the music. My dad was going through some real street sh*t, but as I get older, now that I’m 23, I get to tell you more about how my father and my mother went through it and came out on the other side.”
Meanwhile, listening to Domani’s seven-song March project Amygdala, it’s impressive just how much he sounds like his father. T.I.’s relaxed Atlanta drawl is unmistakable in Domani’s delivery, but again, the content takes a hard right turn from what we’re used to hearing from Tip’s luxuriously accented, multisyllabic flow. Domani discusses heady subjects like fear, love, and legacy — weighty subject matter coming from the 17-year-old progeny of one of the most successful acts in modern-day rap whose life has been public domain due to a six-season reality series, Family Hustle, following his father’s exploits.
“I’m not really trying to be [T.I.],” he says. “There’s no point in trying to do that. My goal is to create my lane and speak to my generation.” He won’t stand for letting it be called “conscious rap” though. “It’s not that conscious, it’s just that people ignoring stuff that’s right in front of their face,” he concludes.
Jaden, of course, just released the follow-up to his 2017 debut album Syre, Syre: The Electric Album, a five-song EP consisting of remixed songs from the original Syre. The album is less a straightforward rap album — which he already proved he could deliver in spades on his debut — than a shoegaze-y reinterpretation of his more ruminative tracks, seemingly just to prove he can do that, too. He never seems to shy away from the fact that he’s the son of pretty much of the most famous and original rapper-turned-actor around, but doesn’t waste much time chasing his dad’s ghost, either.
Where The Fresh Prince’s most recognizable hits were goofy reflections of nostalgia (“Parents Just Don’t Understand”) or ostentatiously overblown party tracks (“Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It”), Jaden’s introspective raps wrestle with identity, defining oneself in an age of seemingly limited restrictions and striving for an ideal world with few limits at all. It’s the same attitude that’s made him the target of ridicule for being a weird, spoiled, rich kid, but that seems genuinely born of an idealistic optimism that could only come from someone who hasn’t had to occupy his days with struggle and survival. It’s something we should all be able to strive for, yet can’t.
In fact, that strain of optimism is the clear link between all three of these young men as they hustle their way into the spotlight on their own terms. The idea of being defined by your origin has always felt like a limit on hip-hop, both musically and culturally, and each is trying to unshackle rap from its destitute expectations in their own way. However, they don’t shy away from the support that their fathers have shown either. Domani and Tre insist that their dads give them the leeway to grow and make mistakes on their own.
“Anything could be an advantage or a disadvantage to the next person,” Domani says. “Everyone comparing my music to his music. People think he can put me in the studio or put my songs on websites. He can pay for a big billboard in every city, but you can’t pay people to support your music. You can’t pay people to support you for the rest of your life.” Tre agrees, in his own way: “People automatically assume. They don’t want to take the time to get to know you. I don’t care. Anybody that works with me doesn’t work with me [because of who my dad is]. They respect the fact that I’ve made my own sound.”
Meanwhile, Will Smith has repeatedly stated in interviews that Jaden steadfastly refuses the sort of unique assistance his royal family can provide, yet goes out of his way to big-up Jaden’s musical accomplishments in a decidedly “dad” way. Recently, he dressed up as Jaden to recreate his “Icon” video shot-for-shot — his way of praising his son’s talent and creativity. There’s no doubt in my mind that when Jaden saw it, though, he did the same thing we all do: Rolled his eyes, sucked his teeth, and gave the drawn-out, “daaad” of embarrassed kids everywhere.