20 Years Later, Will Smith's Debut Album Remains One Of Hip-Hop's Greatest Gems
    • TUESDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2017

    • Posted by: Chris Deverell

    Back in August, if you may recall, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith premiered a previously unreleased track to an unsuspecting crowd at the Livewire Music Festival. The song, "Get Lit," went on to be released as a single in October and received a critical reception for, well, all the wrong reasons. Clearly an attempt to stay relevant with the ever-evolving beast that is the music industry, "Get Lit" is a three minutes and change of EDM cliches and questionable direction. Yet Smith apparently was not disturbed by the general unenthusiastic response that the track received, and in an interview released this week with HipHopDX, when asked about the possibility of releasing more music, Smith mentioned that he and Jazzy Jeff had been in the studio for the past six to eight months, and that while nothing is for certain, Smith said, "We have been doing something".

    Intrigued after reading this, I indulged my curiosity and gave "Get Lit" a listen. I won't pull punches, I didn't like it. The production aims to emulate a Tommorowland/Electric Zoo style of EDM that smacks of a desperate attempt to stay relevant, and eschews any notion of subtly in favor of an in-your-face, break-neck aggressiveness. Smith raps on the track, I guess, but it's nothing like what made him so successful back in the 90s. Uninspired, and about to move on, I felt nostalgic and a little bit more curiosity to revisit some of Smith's older stuff and see what exactly helped him sell nearly 10 million albums in the U.S. alone. Mostly, I suppose, I wanted to see if this "comeback" was even possible. After all, you have to start out somewhere if you want to come back to it.

    I came close to queuing up 1999's Willenium, when I suddenly remembered some VH1 special from years ago mocking it for Smith's less-than-creative play on words in the album title. Instead, and in honor of its recent 20th anniversary, I picked Big Willie Style, and set to listening.

    I don't think I've ever intentionally listened to a Will Smith track, unless paying for a ticket to Men in Black and inadvertently hearing the track by the same name during the closing credits counts. So going into Big Willie Style, I'm not sure what I expected. I think long ago society established as a cultural fact that Will Smith's rapping career was always a bit of hokey side project, and deep down I was prepared for a goofy, uncle-in-socks-and-sandals style performance.

    Ever since the days of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Smith has been known for his clean-cut, "gangsta"-free image that sold well in a market inundated with hip-hop and rap acts that pitched graphic and controversial narratives. Even now, I still can't listen to him without forgetting this moment from Family Guy any time soon.

    Yet clowning Smith for his "white-bread" presentation is a serious disservice to not only the strength of his own work, but hip-hop and rap in general. Big Willie Style came out in 1997, amidst the peak of the 90's gangsta rap era, contending with the likes of Biggie's Life After Death, KRS-One's I Got Next, Wu-Tang's Wu-Tang Forever, and Eminem's The Slim Shady EP. And while Smith may not have had the street cred in the era in which such qualifications could make or break and artist, he did have 15 years of emceeing under his belt. If you can listen past his liberal sprinklings of "woooos" without laughing, you'll find that he actually made in Big Willie Style an album to rival some of the best that the 90s had to offer.

    Aside from going multi-platinum in several countries, several singles from the album peaked in the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and "Gettin' Jiggy wit It" even took home a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance. But even without the awards and accolades, Big Willie Style still stands on its own as a terrific album. A bevy of producers worked on the album, and in contrast to the gritty, urban soundscape painted by the rest of the hip-hop scene in the 90s, Big Willie Style is start-to-finish positivity, where each track sounds like it could be played over the closing credits, as our hero drives off into the sunset with the girl by his side. While Smith's music is sometimes derided as cheesy, the only thing that would make it actually so is if Smith tried to follow in the same, dark vein as his peers. Smith knows who he is, and in his lyricism is an acceptance and contentment with himself.

    There is relentless funk and rhythm, and samples and influences drawn from a variety of sources. There's disco, dance, soul, and R&B all wrapped up into one of the best hip-hop fusions I've ever heard. "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" samples seminal disco group Sister Sledge's "He's the Greatest Dancer" and "Miami" includes one of the best samples of The Whispers' iconic "And the Beat Goes On". Will Smith isn't cheesy, he just runs counter to the sonic esprit of the era, quietly laying the foundation for what was to come in hip-hop. Take one listen to anything released by People Under The Stairs and you'll hear traces of Big Willie Style.

    While gangsta rap dominated the airwaves, Big Willie Style broke the mold of what hip-hop could do. While they weren't the first to do it, Lisa Lopes and Smith showed that you could mix pop, R&B, and hip-hop. It's a formula for success that continues to this day, and visible in tracks like the recent "&burn" by Billie Eilish and Vince Staples. I say that calling Will Smith "goofy" or safe for work is a disservice for rap, because Smith shows us that rap and hip-hop can be so much more than whatever misplaced notions about the hyper-masculinity of these genres that we have.

    A few hours ago, I had no idea I would end up writing this much about Will Smith and an album from 1997. Yet, it seems safe to say that Big Willie Style is undoubtedly one of the best, and underrated, hip-hop albums of any era. I have no idea whether Smith will return to his roots with whatever material he's been cooking up, but I do know that if he chooses to do, I'll be eagerly awaiting it.

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