Big Willie Style
I cried the first time I heard “Just the Two of Us” on the radio. I’ve also spent more than half of my 31 years thinking of myself as, choose your phrase, a head, an adept, a hip-hop junkie, whatever. These two facts don’t sit comfortably together. Will Smith isn’t just being paranoid with the Keith B. Real skits on Big Willie Style—there are Keith B. Reals out there laughing at the very suggestion that Smith is hip-hop, the same way the local gatekeepers at Fat Beats told a friend looking for a Missy album, “We don’t sell that shit.” (What, not funky enough? No, what’s the word, flow?) You need a ticker tape, not a scorecard, to follow the flips in hip-hop’s moral gyroscope: Puffy is bad due to use of obvious samples but Black Star is OK for attacking Puffy while using well-known, but different, samples. Thuggism is reality so that’s OK, but you know we have to uplift the youth, so, um, hold it down, son. What’s a hip-hop parent to do?
Smith got my heartstrings be cause I let him, selfishly, uploading my particular joy in having my particular son. I also got my sniffle on when I realized that the emotionally constricted passageways of hip-hop had let slip, however grudgingly, a song about something other than “ice” or “cheddar.” A sentimental rap tune sounded positively, um, transgressive on Hot 97 next to set pieces by DMX and Jay-Z. And wherever the priests rank him, Smith’s very big with some eight-year-olds I know.
By now, you’ve probably seen him get jiggy with Egyptian hotties on behalf of his own product or target sci-fi software with his ‘Hood Lite syntax and unmacho confidence. I’ve always thought his charm was the real thing, no matter how mercenary his placements, and bemoaned that he shelved his also very real funk so quickly after hitting the big and small screens. I found Big Willie Style a comedown at first, expecting perhaps a return to the firecracker fun of He’s the DJ… I’m the Rapper, but Big Willie‘s highs are all in the “Summertime” mold, Smith cruising when he could be running reds and doing it over a song you already know.
I eventually gave into the pleasures of hearing Smith get loose again. He’s the good witch to Jay-Z’s bad witch, a remarkably comfortable and fluid rapper who doesn’t push his content often enough. So he’s entertaining—fine, I’m in the market and his shit reads even in the cheap seats. I value that, especially when many new heads’ definition of keeping it real includes keeping it functionally obscure. I appreciate when he tells a squeeze-to-be “I don’t mean to objectify” on “Candy” and, yes, he rocked “Just the Two of Us,” the It’s a Wonderful Life of hip-hop, a tune whose schmaltz and skill run neck and neck and whose success depends, really, on whether or not you’ve got Grinchitis.
But this just isn’t the music I imagine driving my son crazy the way the Treacherous 3 and Rakim drove me nuts as a kid. Then, boink, I re membered another eight-year-old I know who wore his Hello Nasty for three days in a row last time I saw him. I reckon one triple platinum rap album might have a lesson for another here: G-rated funk has plenty of room for play that’s not always safe, warmth that isn’t about getting some one to like you, and shit some parents just won’t understand.