Willow Smith’s debut album sounds exactly like you’d expect it to. She’s long past her “Whip My Hair” era and has moved into the brooding angst of her late teens. Her artistry has grown along with her. WILLOW, musically, is a far cry from the music Smith put out when she was 12, and it’s different, too, from the music she put out with her brother (PCH, anybody?). Sonically, it’s a reflection of the person that Smith has grown to be (at least on Instagram & the Red Table Talk): an earthy, spiritual teen looking to understand. On this album, the now 18-year-old is wondering through feelings about being lost, heartbreak, insecurity and disconnection.
It’s an album that sounds more like an EP. At 23 minutes long, WILLOW gets its point across quickly: a feat in a time where music projects often feel like they could be spliced right down the middle. The album opens with “Like A Bird”, a percussion and guitar heavy track that reflects on the pain of heartbreak and lost love. Willow’s vocals have come far since her pre-teen, shout-singing. Her voice has taken on a tone that is deeper, sultrier and sweeter. On “Time Machine”, Willow taps into a feeling of Gen-Z displacement: wishing that you were from a time where things weren’t so confusing. “Everyone is disconnected these days, cause everyone is looking at their phone, tryna feel like they are less alone” she sings, on the track about wishing she was in 1983 New York with Basquiat instead of 2019 with the Kardashian-Jenner’s as her neighbours.
“PrettyGirlz” is another guitar heavy track, where Smith opens up about feelings of teenage girl insecurity. In it, Smith describes wanting something different from girls than what society wants from them. “They want the girls with the hips…want the girls with the prettiest smile, seemingly perfect life, movie, movie” she sings in the beginning. Later, she elaborates: “Want a girl who knows herself, like her favorite book right on the shelf that she’s read a million times”. It’s an interesting iteration of where Smith is at in her feminism. She’s clearly grappling with an environment and industry that prioritizes (and profits from) aesthetic ‘perfection’ over real substance, and it seems (at least for now) that she’s pushing back at that and calling for the girls in her life (Kylie, Jordyn et al) to search for something deeper. It’ll be interesting to see where that idea takes her.
WILLOW is an interesting addition to the musical space. Smith is an artist who, before 18, has already reinvented herself twice. On this album, she’s not singing RNB, she’s not singing ballads, she’s not giving us anything to wine our waists to. She’s come out of the black girl teen music space as someone with a defined sound that is more rock than pop: and it works because she’s comfortable in it. The version of Willow we get on this project is someone more self assured. She’s clearly still young, but the project is more nuanced and layered than anything she’s put out thus far. She’s giving us energy that feels very close to a younger SZA. Just like SZA grew from her ‘Z’ days into ‘CTRL’: Willow is growing into the type of artist poised to release something meaningful to her age group and her era, on her own terms.