At 30, Will Smith is his own stress-free theme park. And that’s only the latest distinction on a résumé that runs from Smith’s ’80s Fresh Prince teen-rapper days, where he was billed behind DJ Jazzy Jeff, to a big TV splash in NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, to stardom in Men in Black, Independence Day and other movies—where he is billed behind exactly no one. The gates to Will Land, though, really swung open in 1997, when Smith returned to recorded music with Big Willie Style, an album much more cleverly conceived and written, not to mention colorfully executed, than most max-entertainment Hollywood film projects. In a day when artists from Master P to Garth Brooks hook up film and music so that a mere album release might enjoy the cultural reach and commercial possibilities of a Batman movie, Smith has proved himself the real master. So far, Big Willie Style has done 6 million copies.
Singles like “Just the Two of Us,” about being a dad, and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” about lighthearted sexual motion, drove those sales. Yet what lifted Smith’s work above jigginess was his writing and casting of Keith B. Real, the truly funny “magazine editor and motivational tape artist” who kept bugging Smith in spoken skits between tracks. The back-and-forth between Smith and Real, the liveliest parody yet of hip-hop’s lofty dictates on authenticity, brilliantly portrayed Will Smith’s wrangles with inside cred and outsize glamour. Conceived utterly in black-pop and hip-hop terms, Big Willie Style told a tale as interesting and nuanced as Nirvana’s arduously chronicled struggles with mainstream adulation.
The difference, of course, was that Will Smith was loving it; basically, he appeared to find his conflicts about as mysterious as pizza. So he pursued his own notions. Smith had his rap ideas, nothing too arcane, merely that cursing was irrelevant, Sugarhill Records was happening, and the dance beats of ’80s pop still kicked. What he seemed to want to do was diminish—at least in his hip hop—the place of an emotion that had characterized the presentations of everyone from Tupac to Biggie, not excluding professional party throwers like Puffy and Jay-Z: the ache. In one sense, this was outrageous and even cold-minded, because ’90s hip hop had grown inconceivable without reference to social disenfranchisement and, later, the operatic context of all-too-actual tragedy. But in another sense, Smith’s championship of the easeful was visionary because, for him, it seemed time to move on to something somehow lighter, something he’d been mulling over as long ago as Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s 1991 oasis “Summertime.” Something more transparent. Something really, really, really slick. “The slickest,” as Smith puts it once on Willennium, his follow-up to Big Willie Style, “they is.”
These days, Smith frets little about the aesthetic controversies that hip-hop heads cultivate but that mostly zoom by his wide world of fans. In “Freakin’ It,” a smooth look at the current lay of the hip-hop land, scored to an itchy sample of “Love Hangover” from which producers Poke and Tone scissor Diana Ross’s pink lingerie, Smith mentions that Rap Pages once called him “soft”—”Yeah,” he shoots back, almost absentmindedly, his voice doing that suavely falling thing it does, “more like Micro-soft.” And, updating the ancient Sugarhill boasting he loves for today’s era of multiple Rolexes, he notes that flatbed trucks delivered his checks for Wild Wild West (also the name of Smith’s enormous smash single, a so-so idea made magnetic by the reliable soul fire of collaborators Dru Hill). But a more telling line is this: “Can’t nobody,” he maintains, “do this the way I do.”
Ask Lil’ Kim, letter-perfect on “Da Butta,” the clipped funk-rap duet she does with Smith, on which he introduces himself as the King of Fun. After Smith says how tired he is of Kim-haters, how they’re making him want to “flip and react,” Lil’ Kim swings in with a fantastic string of no’s: “No, no no, no no, no,” she street-trills, preferring that Will remain Will. In the court of the Fun King, Lil’ Kim turns to butter. A lot of the hardness falls as well out of throaty Eve, a self-described irregular “dame” who turns up at a club on the electro “Can You Feel Me?” She likes that Smith is so low-key, but “play it any lower,” she warns, “and you won’t know me.”
If Lil’ Kim and Eve sound slightly different on Willennium, it’s because they’ve temporarily left the everyday world. They’re in Will Land. There, alongside all the high spirits, you can carp and moan and tweak things this way and that to your dancing heart’s desire. But you can’t ache. Once, in one of the album’s most skeletal stretches, Smith devotes an entire tune to aching—you know, it’s not like he doesn’t realize that loss exists. It’s called “No More,” this kind of slow, bluesily mechanized cataloging of the details of male misconduct and the romantic endgame it produces. Smith gets all the teary stuff out there—no more piggyback rides in the mall or seaside picnics, no more just sitting and playing with her hair. But he won’t wallow in it; playing hurt to the hilt is not Big Willie’s style. If Boyz II Men or D’Angelo had refused to turn up the gas on this kind of material, careers might have stalled.
The opposite is true, however, for the Fun King. After all, it’s almost 2000! So Smith grabs and actually enlivens a theme so mundane it’s already become a dusty national trope with dry cleaners and plumbers and banks and credit card companies: Y2K. Rechristening it “Will 2K,” he remembers how folks freaked 10 years ago when it was only the decade number changing to nine, and that when Prince unveiled “1999” the date then seemed slightly surreal. The intriguing thing about the track is how Smith does more than appoint himself host of this upcoming already done-to-death New Year’s; he also casts himself. Somebody’s gotta do the Guy Lombardo gig, Smith suggests, so why not a deeply content mainstream cat in Prada, with fresh old Clash (“Rock the Casbah”) and Sugarhill (Grandmaster Flash’s “Super Rappin’ “) samples? No time to ache.
Last summer, as Wild Wild West opened, Will Smith appeared on horseback on the cover of Vanity Fair. His only film for which he had less than fond memories, Smith told writer Ned Zeman, was the screen adaptation of Six Degrees of Separation, playwright John Guare’s fastidiously calibrated confusion of identity and pleasure and money and panic glimpsed through a stark Upper East Side Manhattan lens. “It was,” Smith said, “the only film I did that I didn’t have fun.”
What could be less Will Smith than Six Degrees of Separation, a play whose aspirations hark back to the high-modernist values and goals of Pirandello? Smith can’t even stay in the conversation with Rap Pages; a Sugarhill lifer, he just doesn’t feel the compulsion to pursue hip hop that’s about fastidious calibrations of vocabulary and micro-manipulations of flow. Instead, making records during a time when John Updike admits to auditorium audiences that the day of the man of letters has passed, Smith strives to make hip-hop as fleet and efficient as the latest Web site. For him, ease hardly precludes complexity or depth; and, although tragedy certainly occurs, well, drama can get suffocating and inert pretty quick.
So Smith opens and reopens his park, where the rap streams by and the high times abound. There, Smith is a classic upbeat American, bestowing fine logic—spectacular production values, well-turned tunes, pragmatic beats—on illogical notions like pulling an undead single out of Y2K or Wild Wild West. He makes other hip-hop honchos seem like esoteric art-monsters, a touch on the mandarin side. Which they’re not. But it can sure seem that way, once you’ve punched your ticket to Will Land.