Willmatic (Stones Throw, 2005)
by Will Smith
[Yale Herald, April 1, 2005]

You can blame Will Smith for plenty of things—for co-opting Stevie Wonder for “Wild Wild West,” for naming his first two albums Big Willie Style and Willennium, for The Legend of Bagger Fucking Vance—but you can’t blame him for trying new things. Musically and filmically, he’s been branching out since his Fresh Prince days, and, even if his efforts have been more misses than hits, he has an undeniable knack for keeping us guessing.

After the relative failure of 2002’s Born to Reign, Smith did what most rappers with day jobs should do (this means you, Shaq): He went back to work. He made I, Robot, then probably spent some time with his wife and kids, then made Hitch. But somewhere in that time he began to thirst powerfully to return to musical self-expression. So powerfully did he thirst that he recorded two albums’ worth of material and released them at the same time, following the lead of fellow popular rap/R&B acts like Outkast and Bright Eyes. The first of the resulting albums, Lost and Found

But the second? Well, nobody saw that coming. One would assume that only Nas was allowed to spin off his own album titles, but Smith displays such raw lyrical talent and such thuggish charisma on Willmatic that even 50 Cent would think twice about starting some shit. This is a far cry from the man responsible for “Parents Just Don’t Understand”; this is an art-hop masterpiece, by turns impossibly clever (“It’s Not You, It’s Monogamy”) and blisteringly truthful about street life (the spectacular Memphis Bleek collaboration “Jewelz”). “Weekly nigga/ I got seven fly umbrellas/ Don’t be cheeky, nigga/ I drop it live in bright colors,” he spits in “Love Money” over an angular string sample. “Drinkin’ green tea, nigga/ So I can die in a puddle.” Fabolous guests on the shockingly raunchy group-sex anthem “Just the Four of Us.” Jeff Goldblum sings the hook on the loosely ID4-inspired “Welcome to Earf.”

What’s more, Smith’s verbal acrobatics come backed by an all-star crew of producers, helmed by the ubiquitous MF Doom and featuring more obscure luminaries like Alchemist and King Honey. Even RZA drops by to back Smith as he fondly remembers Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the affecting “Yo Russ.” The result is certainly impressive on its own, but doubly so in its sheer unexpectedness; far from the usual state of affairs where we humor the actor until he shuts up and goes back to acting, Willmatic is proof that Smith can make as many sequels to Men In Black as he wants so long as he continues to get jiggy wit it for years to come.