[Roc Nation; 2015]

Styles: electro-neo-retro IDK, Adventure Time, Bandcamp
Others: Frankie Cosmos, The Karate Kid (2010), Britney Spears

Two Approaches To ARDIPITHECUS


There’s a 50-second clip on the internet of the Smith family being interviewed at an I Am Legend red carpet event. A hand holding a microphone asks about Willow Smith’s debut performance. Will says “I love her energy.” He smiles, repeats “energy” a couple times. Jaden turns away from the microphone. Jada: “It’s in their blood, it’s a natural thing, it’s funny to see how DNA works.” She grimaces at her answer.

The clip doesn’t have anything to do with ARDIPITHECUS, Willow Smith’s debut full-length album. Mentioning the interview in any attempt to engage with Willow Smith’s art is cheap, unhelpful, toxic.

“I love what you do/ Don’t you know that you’re toxic?”

Celebrity is a system of toxicity, a body at risk, an immunizing instinct, a tendency to always be getting better and worse. We made Britney Spears accountable for making every biggest pop blockbuster. When she ran out of matter to give us, we made her a tragic arc in our national soap. In the static surrounding the identity and art of Willow, you can hear a machine’s rumblings: she’s too precocious, she’s growing up too quickly, she’s unnatural.

The first words that Willow stutter-croons on her “music compilation” are “classification and organization is ruining the hearts of our generation/ I said it.” It’s a definitive thesis from a 15-year-old brain with apparently unlimited access to a recording studio and Herman Hesse’s reading list. Willow thinks public schools are teaching the wrong things the wrong ways. Willow knows kids would be better off left to find their own truths. Willow is down with the planet enough to just call her Gaia. Willow likes Adventure Time and sloppy cosmic imagery.

There’s nothing bad about the fake Björk beat of “Organization & Classification.” There’s nothing bad about the cover of “Human Behaviour” on Willow’s SoundCloud. There’s nothing bad about the tUnE-yArDs font of “dRuGz,” of not calling your album an album because it’s a “music compilation.” But so much of listening to ARDIPITHECUS feels immeasurable by good or bad. It’s not saying that Willow doesn’t get to make ARDIPITHECUS without being Willow Smith of the celebrity Smith family. Saying that is cheap, unhelpful, toxic.

Listening to pop music is toxic. It is pathogens and antidotes, a body building on everything that came before, regurgitating past viruses and calling them new cures. You can’t help but hear a body’s history. Willow’s history is homeschooling and celebrity, leisure and privilege, and not a long enough timeline to register her own shortcomings. In the last minutes of “F Q­-C #8,” Willow interrupts her own star eyes with a goofy radio spot, “We’re gonna slow it down for you guys real quick.” It’s a rare moment of humor, of acknowledging a pair of ears and another brain that’s looking for pleasure here. ARDIPITHECUS fails as a pop record, because it’s barely aware that it’s a part of that conversation.


Ardipithecus raises eyes, sees sun. A Miocene wind on a plain, up an arm, through the hair. Ardipithecus closes eyes, sees dark, touches cheek, traces teeth. “Known only from teeth and bits and pieces of skeletal bones” drifts by in an un-language from a five-and-a-half-million-year foreign future, repeating itself until Ardipithecus knows this to be true, that these things from now are important and worth saving. Impossibly young and eventually dead, it walks away.

Ardipithecus Ramidus is the scientific name of the first hominid bones found on earth,” says Willow Smith. “ARDIPITHECUS is my first album in my entire career and it makes me feel so blessed to be able to share my evolution with the LightEaters as I continue excavating my inner worlds.”

“Til something changes it’s a different language”

When you’re a grumbly twenty-five, chapped hands, used to misinterpreting supermarket PRODUCE signs as commands and not section markers, Willow Smith can induce recoil. She has time and resources and she released a few Tumblr’s worth of thoughts as a Roc Nation record on a whim. You say: she has too much, she’s too young. There are two (!) songs about Marceline from Adventure Time, and no record should reference “the third eye” this much and—

Resist. Breathe. Slip into 15 tracks of bubbling thoughts and witness Willow figuring out how to speak a language and sing in her voice. “Whip My Hair” dropped like the paint ball bombs in its music video, letting a girl curl her lips around a chorus until it was singular, psychic, a balm. “WhipmyhairbacknforthIwhipmy”. ARDIPITHECUS, like the extinct hominine it references, is similarly primal, a shout from a young beast. Can pop music be evolution? There’s Willow, leaning into a long nasal A, laughing at her own atonal grins in “RANDOMSONG.” When Kurt Cobain would sing a little too low and let his voice shake and jostle like a rusted vessel in an old log flume ride? She tries that. It sounds dumb and awesome. There’s that song about Marceline from Adventure Time; I don’t watch Adventure Time, but when Willow stretches every syllable of that name as far it it’ll go, yearning, hoping, I know it’s important. And when “Marceline Pt. 2” hits, a bloopy hiccup remix of what just came before, I know it’s just for fun.

But the center comes in on “ÍDK,” the place where you see the teeth of Willow’s grin and think that maybe she’s right there with you on the whole effort: “I don’t know/ I will never know,” she says. And then there’s lilting liftoff, more talk of the third dimension, more cosmos mess that goes nowhere. But you can’t help but get a joke on the level that it’s told. You can’t hear pop music except in the language it’s scribbled in. Her vocabulary is small and the tendency to reproduce another’s preexisting diction a little too pronounced right now. But isn’t language, like pop music, evolution?

There’s a 50-second clip on the internet of the Smith family being interviewed at an I Am Legend red carpet event. A hand holding a microphone asks Willow about her debut performance.

She doesn’t answer right away. Not because she doesn’t know, but because she’s looking for the best words she has.

“It’s fun. It’s really, really, really fun. It’s fun because you get to act different ways.”

Links: Willow - Roc Nation

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