Up Jumps Da Jiggy Biz Markie guests.
By Kembrew McLeod
Those who dis Will Smith's music for being light and fluffy seem to be forgetting that hip-hop was built on the foundations laid by old-school party MCs such as Kurtis Blow, Jimmy Spicer and Spoonie Gee. And to accuse Will Smith of not being "real" enough because of his suburban background and movie star status is to engage in racial and cultural politics that get us nowhere, and to miss out on the pure pleasure principle of Smith's music. Songs such as "I'm Comin' ", "Freakin' It" and "Can You Feel Me?" prove Smith is today's best proponent of disco rap, and his new album is filled with more jiggy-ness than was his previous multiplatinum platter, Big Willie Style. The Fresh Prince, his previous incarnation, even makes a cameo (on "So Fresh") in much the same way that Prince briefly returns to guest on The Artist's new album, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. Perhaps there's something about the "Prince" name they can't hold back - I guess you could call it the return of the repressed. "So Fresh" (RealAudio excerpt) recalls hip-hop's more innocent times, when DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince hit big with "Parents Just Don't Understand" and MCs such as Slick Rick and Biz Markie (who guest on the track) blew my 18-year-old mind with their debut albums. He just concentrates on keeping the crowd moving.
"Pump Me Up" is essentially Smith's version of the Beastie Boys' "3 MCs and 1 DJ," but with just Smith on the mic and Jazzy Jeff working the ones and twos. With a groove provided by the Trouble Funk Go-Go classic of the same title, Jazzy Jeff gives Mixmaster Mike a run for his money as Jeff reminds us that he was one of hip-hop's preeminent DJs during his heyday (he invented the "transformer scratch," a popular scratch that is still used today). Most important, unlike many new turntablists, Jeff never drops the beat and keeps the party going by not getting too flashy. In many ways, that track is a metaphor for Smith's successful music career. Smith doesn't feel the need to show off his "skills," and instead he just unpretentiously concentrates on keeping the crowd moving by delivering exactly what it wants: good times.
Smith will forever be accused of being too pop. But the naysayers ignore Smith's killer taste, playful sense of humor and years of experience. Sure, he's never going to win an MC contest, but the guy's more assured as a rapper than ever, dissing purists on the opening track while turning sensitive on "Afro Angel." Success has also expanded Smith's horizons. The first single, "Will 2K," uses patches of the Clash and Prince to create an invincible generation-hopping party tune. Elsewhere, Tito Puente, Trouble Funk and LTD get sampled, so we can dance the night away. This is definitely the cure for the Y2K bug.
It's tough to tell if the world has been corrupted by Will's jigginess or if Will's jigginess has been corrupted by the world it lives in. But whatever the case may be, Willennium (being the stupidest and coolest album title ever) is certainly more touched with "reality" than Big Willie Style was. After all, you get Lil' Kim, Eve, and Slick Rick on a record, and it can't help but be a little real. And for the most part, there is a decided turn here towards more substantial beat construction and more complex rhythms. But, of course, those things don't keep Will2K from being the jiggiest jiggy jig ever. And, of course, they don't keep Willennium from being the most ridiculous hip-hop fun you've had since Big Willie Style. I mean, come on, it's Will Smith! He's not in the rap game to be hard. He's not in the rap game to push a political agenda. He's not in the rap game to speak for the streets. Will Smith is in the rap game because you love him. You love his smile. You love his goofy-ass dancing. You love his sheer, guileless jigginess. And he delivers 15 cuts of what you love on Willennium, because Will Smith wants to give you what you love. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If he was pretending -- like some other fools -- that his jigginess was some reflection of reality or that he was a gangster, you'd have every right to be offended. But Willennium is all about crowd-moving happiness. And from the quiet storm groove of "Afro Angel" (featuring a spoken-work intro from, uh, his wife) to the Gloria Estefan castoff "La Fiesta," it covers pretty much all the bases. And though there's a little "old school" nod ("So Fresh," with both Biz Markie and Slick Rick), a stunning midtempo ballad (the Illadelph-centric "The Rain," featuring the inimitable Jill Scott), and a surprisingly dense future-rap ("I'm Comin'"), the majority of Willennium is given up to hands-in-the-air, butt-shakin' fun. Of course, tracks like "Freakin' It" and "Can You Feel Me" help highlight Smith's substandard flow, but it's all irrelevant. When, on "Pump Me Up," Will's all laughing and chatting it up with DJ Jazzy Jeff, you forget to listen for "skills" and just give it up and enjoy the ride. And between "Da Butta," "Uhhhh," and hits like "Wild Wild West" and "Will2K," the ride just gets more and more fun. So, it seems that Will's jigginess has, in fact, affected the world more than the world has affected Will's jigginess. Because he ain't changed a damn bit, but, in 1999, the party he's having looks like a whole lot of fun.
- Jason Ferguson
You gotta give it up for "Big Will," the man knows how to throw a party. On his latest effort, Willennium, pop culture superstar Will Smith, along with his considerable posse, sets the mood, a little early, for your upcoming New Year's parties. In addition to naming the album Willennium, the first single off the disc is the party anthem, "Will 2K," which features a sample of the Clash's "Rock the Casbah" and vocal help from K-Ci (of K-Ci & Jo-Jo). Though it's the second track on the disc, it sets the tone for the celebratory side of the album. On the party scene is where Smith, who's made his name by playing the likable class clown, normally excels. He stakes his claim to being rap's No. 1 party animal on tracks like the Latin-flavored "La Fiesta," the previously released celeb-fest "Wild Wild West," and the old-school-styled "So Fresh," which features hip-hop veterans Biz Markie and Slick Rick. As much as Smith is on top of his game on the feel-good tracks, the record's finest moments come when he lets his vulnerable side come through, such as on the R&B-flavored "Afro Angel," featuring an appearance from his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and background vocals by Anthem; the sweet "No More, " in which Smith asks his partner for forgiveness for an affair (hopefully, not autobiographical), and the closing track, "The Rain," about finding what really matters in life. If the finest moments come when Smith opens himself up, he slips when he stoops to answering his critics. In the opening song, "I'm Comin'," Smith warns, "You can't stop me, I'm comin', you can't hold me back." That's nothing compared to the bragging in "Freakin' It," where Smith challenges "all the rappers yelling about who you put in a hearse" to do me a favor and "write one verse without a curse" and boasts about his Grammys, his money, and Jada. From someone who's built his reputation on a sense of humor, all the bravado comes off as unnecessary and, if anything, drags Smith down to the level of his "competitors." Smith himself says in "The Rain," "Amongst the fall is where you truly find yourself." Perhaps, then, on his next album, he can stick to doing what he does best for an entire album, not two-thirds of one.
Smith follows 1997's "Big Willie Style" with a collection that aims to bridge the gap between pop music and hardcore hip-hop. He's not willing to merely be the guy who flexes accessible rhymes for the masses. Smith's gunning for credibility - and he makes a reasonable argument for getting it, too. Besides benefiting from collaborations with such revered street figures as Eve, Slick Rick, MC Lyte, and Biz Markie, Smith has also seriously strengthened his lyrical delivery. Lightweight fodder like the candy-sweet single "Will 2K" is balanced by much smarter, more substantial jams like the clever "Potnas" and "No More." Another key selling point of "Willennium" is its use of highly recognizable samples. Even if you don't dig Smith, you'll have a good time chewing on nuggets from Diana Ross' "Love Hangover," L.T.D.'s "(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again," A Taste Of Honey's "Sukiyaki," Peter Brown's "Do Ya Wanna Get Funky With Me," Tito Puente's "Mambo Con Puente," Michael Jackson's "Working Day And Night," and Deniece Williams' "I Believe In Miracles." Talk about a festive trip back in time!
At this late date, it takes an artist of considerable charm to pull off any reference to Y2K or the millennium without making sensible folks retch. And, of course, there's no entertainer alive with more innate charm than the artist formerly known as the Fresh Prince. Revolving around the guitar scratch from Clash's "Rock the Casbah," "Will 2K" finds Smith defusing 1999's most tedious topic as such: "Chaos/cops blocking off the streets/who the hell cares, just don't stop the beat." A well-turned phrase like that tells us Smith isn't a slumming movie star, but a long-standing rhymer of distinction. Certainly more so than the day's other predominant hip-popper, Puff Daddy, who is not only a lousy wordsmith, but a writer whose obsession with playa hatas renders his last record unlistenable. On the opening "I'm Comin'" Smith too burns to prove his cred, but ultimately moves on to praising his sisters on "Afro-Angel," revisiting rhyming styles of yore with cameos from Biz Markie and Slick Rick on "So Fresh," and spotlighting the still-startling turntable work of his long-time partner Jazzy Jeff on "Pump Me Up." Willennium may seem to some like the dabbling of a G-rated softie - Smith frequently chastises rappers who insist on cursing, and in so doing makes the normally filthy mouthed Lil' Kim keep it clean in "Da Butta." But his lessons go even deeper. Sometimes hip-hop artists just forget to be fun. Not our man though. From "Parents Just Don't Understand" to "Summertime" to "Boom! Shake the Room" to "Gettin' Jiggy with It" to every cut on Willennium, this man in black is willing to forego hardness for sheer party-rockin' joy. For Smith, keepin' it real means having a blast, and he's every bit the hip-hop master for it.
''Smart folks don't need to put no cursin' in their rhymes,'' Will Smith raps on ''I'm Comin','' the opening track on Willennium, the follow-up to 1997's multi-platinum ''Big Willie Style.'' He's as good as his word, even reining in the normally foulmouthed Lil' Kim, who guests on ''Da Butta.'' It's no secret that since rekindling his rap career, Smith has opted to go the MC Hammer/Puff Daddy route, building his hits on other artists' hooks. It may not be classy, but it's effective. ''Willennium'''s first single, ''Will 2K,'' samples the Clash's ''Rock the Casbah,'' while ''Freakin' It'' recycles Diana Ross' ''Love Hangover'' for the umpteenth time. (Of course, it's entirely possible many 14-year-old Smith fans have never heard either song, so complaints from disapproving old coots may well be moot.)
Covering all bases, the Jiggy One essays a Latin number (''La Fiesta''), shares mic time with '80s contemporaries Biz Markie and Slick Rick (''So Fresh''), duets with newcomer EVE (''Can You Feel Me?''), and kicks it old-school style with his not-exactly-equal former partner D.J. Jazzy Jeff (''Pump Me Up''). ''Eclecticism is a virtue,'' he declares on ''Uuhhh,'' and, in truth, ''Willennium'' is far more sonically diverse than, for instance, the latest No Limit release. Hardcore types may dismiss him as a lightweight, but only a fool would deny Will's skills. No, he's not ''the hip-hop Moses'' he calls himself here, but he is a lyrically fluid rapper with deep roots in hip-hop culture and a clearly defined artistic vision.
Grade: B+ -- Tom Sinclair
Lets just get this out of the way: Will Smith is the bomb and represents Philly more than any other emcee has. Will2K is BANGIN! Will Smith is true Hip Hop. For those of y'all talkin that "Will is soft" stuff: give it up. I love this album. This is the first album since Will's own "Big Willie Style" that my Godson allows me to play when he's in the car. And you know if the young bucks are feelin' it on the first play, it equals success. Will ain't doin' nothin' that he hasn't been doin' all along. The man makes party music better than anyone in the business, Puff Daddy included. That's not to say that the Fresh Prince isn't a real emcee. Do I need to remind anybody of his legendary battle with Steady B on Mimi Brown's Rap Digest on WDAS in 1988? Who kicked whose ass? Now that I've vented (like he needs me to have his back), onto the album… Since no one loves old school Philly Hip Hop more than PhillyHipHop.com, lets start off with "Pump Me Up." It doesn't get any realer than this. Damn, this brings back madd memories! I'm closin' my eyes and having flashbacks of Saturday night performances at Camden High School. Of course Jazzy Jeff reminds us why he's still one of the world's premier DJs. "Will2K" is brilliant. This is a masterful reinterpretation of the Clash's 1982 hit "Rock The Casbah." If this doesn't make you want to dance you must be dead. Did y'all notice the reworking of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's "Flash To The Beat" in the mix? "Can You Feel Me" updates Michael Jackson like he never could have imagined. With the assistance of fellow Philly wordsmith EVE, they rip it and bring a proud 215 smile to my face. This is simply another dance classic. Once again Will reaches back but EVE isn't the only Philly head to represent because super-poetess Jill Scott throws down lovely on "The Rain." The all-star linup is rounded out by Biz Markie, Slick Rick, MC Lyte, Tatyana Ali and Breeze (not the real, original MC Breeze). I could go on and on but let's just say that this album is a sure shot. Please don't e-mail me saying I'm jocking the Fresh Prince. Its just that game recognizes game. Reviewed by Funk Wizard Snow.
Will Smith is the future of hip-hop--in the sense that Willennium, his follow-up to 1997's multiplatinum Big Willie Style, is sure to dominate pop-rap airwaves and sales in the months after its release. Proud of his kid appeal but also self-mocking (he carries the title concept further with the single "Will2K," a party jam built on a sample of the Clash's "Rock the Casbah"), Smith celebrates the early-rap values of good-natured boasting and fun-fun-fun. This megastar's desire to remain part of the community is reflected in his savvy choice of guests, who number everyone from K-Ci to rappers new school (Lil' Kim, Eve) and old (Slick Rick, Biz Markie); once and future partner DJ Jazzy Jeff even gets his own four minutes of funk on the scratch-happy "Pump Me Up." Smith also attempts cinematic--natch--storytelling on "Afro Angel" and "The Rain," which are admirably solemn if far from the best things here. Smith may not be the hippest hip-hopper around, but as Chuck D once said of another, very different figure, "Don't tell me that you understand until you hear the man."
I’m not gonna beat around the bush - Willennium is a major improvement in every way over Big Willie Style. Beats, lyrics, and overall delivery - dang, I had no idea Will had this in him! Of course, there are tracks that cement Will’s place on the jiggy throne. ’’Will 2K’’ is an example for starters (with K-Ci on the backing vocals) - this is the party anthem they’ll be playing on December 31, 1999. Also, ’’Freakin’ It’’ is bound to get that bum shakin’. Wanna dance a little more? Peep ’’Da Butta’’ (with Lil’ Kim) and La Fiesta for more proof. Something else we all know Will for is his sense of humour. He has not lost it here at all. I mean, who else could refer to McGruff (not the rapper - that dog) while saying ’’taking a bite out of crime?’’ (La Fiesta) Or how about this laugh-fest from ’’Uuhhh’’: ’’Plan down pat like Sajak / Wheel of Fortune away / Price ain’t right - I don’t play! / Find yourself in Jeopardy? / The first clue - what is Will Smith / Hot to death - not you!’’ Or this joker from the same song: ’’Eclecticism is a virtue / It may not be a word but it’s definitely a virtue.’’ Okay, one more from Kel Spencer (guesting on Uuhhh): ’’Cats rockin’ the same flows every day ’cause they lame / True players gotta change their uniforms after the game.’’ Now for the stuff you are not expecting. You know the expression - ’’If you don’t know your past, you don’t know the future.’’ Will, knowing this, put on some killer old-school jams as a reminder that he was around in the 80s - and they’re convincing. One of my favourite tracks is ’’So Fresh’’ - it’s an old-school jam with Jazzy Jeff on the tables, and Biz Markie and Slick Rick rocking the mic with Big Willie. That beat is going to make you pull a John The Baptist (i.e. lose your head), and the BizMark and Rick add some nice touches. And then there’s Pump Me Up with Will and Jeff. This reminded me of ’’The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff’’ - with Will’s call and Jeff’s response. And in case you forgot what Jeff could do with two tables - well, I’ll leave that for you to find out. Here’s something else I know you do not expect - Will’s lyrics. To some, this is an oxymoron - but there are many examples of Will’s lyrical improvement. Also, Will’s not beating around the bush - he’s bold this time around. You may be doubting, so here’s some examples: ’’Volcanoes erupting, rage in the sea / Ain’t the second coming of Christ, it’s the first coming of me’’ (I’m Comin’) How about this one: ’’I read in Rap Pages they referred to me as soft / Yeah, more like Microsoft / Will Gates of the rap game’’ (Freakin’ It) (This metaphor is kind of scary considering Microsoft’s recent troubles). And if you really want something to relate to, check ’’The Rain.’’ Of course I’m not going to tell you everything! However, be prepared for constant scratches, clean lyrics (and some deep ones), and a big improvement over Big Willie Style. Welcome to the Willennium - resistance is futile. Oh yeah, the Puffy comparisons? Except for three tracks, the buck stops here! This is a victory for clean hip-hop and hip-hop PERIOD.