With her recent releases, ‘t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l’ and ‘Lipstick’ Willow has once again demonstrated that she is one of this generation’s most talented artists and one who promises ingenuity in what could well be a long and ever-changing career.
At just 20, Willow Smith, known mononymously as Willow, already has a wide and varied back catalogue of five (soon to be six) studio albums, and one EP. Long gone are the days of ‘Whip My Hair’, a very commercial song clearly written for a ten-year-old celebrity. Since then she has distanced herself stylistically from it, exploring synth-driven and guitar-based R&B, eastern influences, and now punk rock. Her lyrics, even from this early stage, have always covered complex themes relating to identity, the soul, and relationships.
Her debut album Ardipithecus (2015) shows a high level of maturity and emotional intelligence for a teenager, perhaps comparable to Billie Eilish’s early work. Songs like ‘Marceline’, ‘Marceline, PT. 2’, and ‘Wait a Minute!’ are among the best on an album mostly produced and all written or co-written by Willow. This level of control she has enjoyed on the vast majority of her work, relinquishing this power only on her own terms to collaborate with songwriters and producers. Her move to guitar-based R&B on The 1st (2017) and WILLOW (2019) represents a significant divergence from the heavier electronic production of Ardipithecus. Two songs that are indicative of this shift in style are ‘Female Energy, Part 2’ and ‘Time Machine’.
Similarly, her EP Rise with Jahnavi Harrison, a British artist known for her mantra meditation music, is built up of songs that lean into eastern influences, with what sounds like an Indian sarod on ‘Gajendra’, and Hindu mantras in many of the album’s lyrics. This EP and her previous releases are indicative of Willow’s ability to collaborate effectively in order to integrate new sounds, ideas, and styles into her music. Her collaboration with drummer Travis Barker on ‘t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l’ has been the most commercially successful and a #1 hit. Willow knew that in working with Barker, whose band Blink-182 were part of the punk rock scene of the early 90s, she could produce a song that was true to the style. Her upcoming album lately I feel EVERYTHING will feature her two recent singles and looks like it will move strongly in this direction.
It must be said that her family name provides her with opportunities not available to others: contacts in the industry, collaborations with established artists, and the freedom to write and produce most of her own material from the age of 15. It has also allowed her to move through so many stylistic iterations of herself. By contrast, even the most successful artists are pigeonholed early on and their output is largely controlled by record labels. For example, other pop artists of this generation, like Doja Cat and Ariana Grande, are rarely afforded creative liberties with their music, which is often written and produced with up to 7 or 8 others.
That being said, Willow makes the most of these opportunities to pave the way for other artists by expanding and celebrating that minority of black artists in the genre. Hopefully, her success will encourage record companies to have faith in black artists outside of traditionally ‘black’ genres.
Willow is a talented chameleon who is not afraid to collaborate, a good sign for an artist who will continue to innovate and change for decades to come. Her success at such a young age is a reminder for listeners and executives alike that when given creative freedom musicians will produce original and innovative music, a principle that used to be recognised in the industry but has since been marginalised in favour of the guarantee of instant commercial success.
Written by Jared White
Fruzsina Vida is the Arts & Culture Editor at The Yorker. If you have any questions or queries, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.