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If your pop culture memory goes back far enough, you’ll vividly remember when Willow Smith — daughter to Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith — exploded into the conversation at just 9 years old with a knowing smirk and the incomparable banger “Whip My Hair.” At the time, most critics greeted the youngest Smith with a mixture of awe and skepticism: a prepubescent capturing the zeitgeist sans Disney contract? Amazing. But, nepotism.
Of course, it didn’t entirely matter how good the song and its paint-splattering video were. (And they were good.) Willow could never entirely escape the chorus of skeptics around her ultra-famous parentage and what that meant for her future as a singer. America loves a good underdog story, despite the reality that most famous people get somewhere precisely due to their proximity to other famous people. Far be it from me to fault Willow — or any child of a famous person — for simply being born and interested in art. Should her famous family cloud the fact that Willow is wildly talented in her own right? Absolutely not.
Since the viral success of “Whip My Hair,” Willow has spent the last 11 years publicly exploring her musical identity, releasing a handful of albums that lean into a wide spectrum of influences: there’s jazz-pop and R&B on 2015’s Ardipithecus, ’90s singer-songwriter vibes on 2017’s The 1st, and psychedelic soul on her 2019 self-titled. On the just-released Lately I Feel Everything, however, Willow stage dives face-first into a hard-rock and pop-punk aesthetic and crowd surfs into the sunset.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Willow’s pop-punk pivot is a move that’s been in the works for a while now, perhaps her entire life, given the musical inspiration she’s absorbed from her mother, who was famously in 2000s nü-metal act Wicked Wisdom. Also, just last year, Willow released a rock-driven album, The Anxiety, with her partner Tyler Cole, who oversees production on this LP. On Lately I Feel Everything, Willow gets to really stretch out and smash the patriarchy, mining influence from Black rock music performers like Fefe Dobson, and Alexis Brown from Knoxville metalcore act Straight Line Stitch. The result is 11 tracks of explosive, catchy-as-hell anthems that offer a snapshot of a young yet keenly aware-of-herself woman who knows how to balance style with substance.
This is also an unexpectedly satisfying avenue for Willow’s soaring vocals, which are worthy of comparison to Paramore‘s Hayley Williams and even Miley Cyrus (speaking of child stars who’ve recently adopted a rock aesthetic). On the howling opener “Transparent Soul,” featuring building-collapsing percussion from genre icon Travis Barker, Willow tackles disingenuous, potentially exploitative characters (“I knew a boy just like you / He’s a snake, just like you / Such a fake, just like you”). Like a punk-rock godfather, Barker shows up all over the album, on the similarly frenzied “Gaslighter” and “Grow.” The latter track, a fist-pumping anthem for the ages about personal evolution, contains a full-circle Noughties punk moment with vocals from Avril Lavigne, who today’s youth mostly know from TikTok and dating pop-punk rebirther Mod Sun.
Such big-name involvement from Barker and Lavigne could make Lately I Feel Everything appear a bit one-note, but that’s would be selling the album and its author short. A closer listen reveals a Gen Z-core blend of genres, with alt-rapper Tierra Whack offering a verse on the reverb-heavy ballad “Xtra,” and “Come Home,” featuring Ayla Tesler-Mabe from Canadian jazz-funk outfit Ludic, offering a gritty shout-along anthem that blurs the lines between classic rock, grunge, and nü-metal. Finally, album closer “Breakout” is a heady swerve into riot grrrl territory, featuring assistance from LA garage outfit Cherry Glazerr.
Taken together, Lately I Feel Everything falls right into line with a currently on-trend Y2K pop-punk revival (see also: Olivia Rodrigo, the aforementioned Mod Sun, Machine Gun Kelly, Maggie Lindemann). But that’s no reason to disregard it, just like Willow’s parentage is no reason to dismiss her immense talent and beyond-her-years point of view. Like her Gen Z peers, Willow came of age at a frightening time in America: 9/11, two recessions, a global pandemic, an ever-widening split of political ideals. Most people her age have had to reevaluate what being young and supposedly unencumbered is supposed to look like. Naturally, it feels cleansing to lean into the past (Y2K nostalgia). But, as she mines a path for more women of color to rock out in male-dominated spaces, Willow is innovating with intention. It’s a lot to feel at once, but the catharsis is worth it.
Lately I Feel Everything is out now on MSFTSMusic/Roc Nation. Get it here.