2015 is officially here, CXF readers! New year. New content. Let’s get rolling.
You all know by now that I love music. I’ve written many articles on the subject but one genre that I never really explored on this site is hip-hop. While I can run down my favorite artists such as Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, Outkast, Immortal Technique and many others, there was one individual who despite not being a personal favorite of mine, earned his place in rap history in a manner that you wouldn’t expect. That man is Will Smith.
As an actor, Will Smith is at the top of the Hollywood food chain with a number of box office hits under his belt. He and his wife, actress Jada Pinkett, are among the industry’s most prominent couples. His children, son Jaden and daughter, Willow are starting to carve legacies of their own, looking to head the Smith dynasty long after their parents are gone.
But before he dominated the big screen, Smith actually excelled at another medium: music.
In fact, before he was even acting on-screen, Smith started his career in entertainment as a hip-hop artist. Under the moniker of The Fresh Prince, he teamed with good friend, DJ Jazzy Jeff to form one of the most famous duos in hip-hop history.
In 1987, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, released their debut album, Rock The House but it wasn’t until their second record, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper that the pair really took off. The sophomore effort peaked at number four on the Billboard Top 200 and the single Parents Just Don’t Understand won the inaugural Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance in 1989.
The album also contained A Nightmare On My Street which was written about horror icon, Freddy Krueger. Although the song heavily references the Nightmare on Elm Street films, it was never officially released on any soundtrack nor played in any of the movies due to a copyright issue with New Line Cinema. The song doesn’t fit the tone of the series at all but hey, they were heading in a more comedic tone anyway, so why shouldn’t it have been included?
Another hit produced by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince was I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson off their third album, …And in this Corner. The track’s music video features appearance by the boxing legend himself along with promoter, Don King. In 1992, Summertime was released which became their biggest song and earned Will Smith his second Grammy for Best Performance by a Duo of Group.
To this day, it’s one of the premiere summer anthems (I wonder why I didn’t include it on my summer playlist for 2014) and is their most played song on mainstream radio. The twosome released their last album, Code Red, in 1993 which contained the single, Boom! Shake The Room
The most glaring quality that set Will Smith apart from many rappers before and after him was that he almost never used profanity in his songs. Common themes in hip-hop such as violence, drug use, loathing of authority, and sexual intercourse were also absent from his music which was something he took great pride in. Smith just incorporated humor with general laid back flow which gained him a large fanbase as kids and even adults were comfortable listening to him. The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff wrote some catchy songs that people of all ages can enjoy.
Now while the duo’s popularity was arguable at its hottest, Smith was approached by NBC to star in a sitcom based around him which would eventually be titled The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In one of the most popular television shows of the 1990s, Smith played a troubled Philadelphia teen who is sent to live with his wealthy relatives in Bel-Air, California after he gets into a serious brawl with fellow neighborhood kids. The sitcom was remembered for its classic theme song which was rapped by none other than Smith himself and even featured DJ Jazzy Jeff in a recurring role as Jazz, a clueless but lovable comrade of Will’s. It ran for six seasons before ending its run in 1996. It was during production of The Fresh Prince that Will found his niche in action films starring in Michael Bay’s debut feature, Bad Boys alongside Martin Lawrence. The movie spawned a sequel in 2003 and a rumored third movie may be on the horizon as well.
Following the show’s end, Will continued to rule on-screen in Hollywood while also focusing on his rap game again. He starred in the summer blockbuster, Independence Day in 1996 then released his mega smash debut solo record, Big Willie Style, in 1997. The album peaked at number eight on the Billboard Top 200 eventually going on to sell nearly 15 million copies worldwide. The record spawned the huge hits, Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It, Miami, and Men In Black which was the first track Will released to tie in with one of his films, this one obviously accompanying the alien-themed action/comedy, Men In Black. These singles helped the record stay fresh in people’s minds for over a year. The LP also includes a cover of Bill Withers and Grover Washington Jr.’s Just The Two Of Us with the accompanying video featuring his eldest son, Trey (the Smith child no one talks about). Will was now not only ruling the silver screen, but he was music’s hottest rapper as well.
It was during this time that Will started receiving criticism from fans and even fellow artists who dismissed him as nothing more than a novelty act whose music wouldn’t get a second listen if not for his name. Celebrities have a hard enough time as it is breaking into music after being established in another on-screen profession and Smith was not about to let these claims get to him. He addressed these critics in his later records and still continued to sell millions worldwide.
Two years later, Smith released the song, Wild Wild West in conjunction with his movie of the same name. While the film was poorly received, the song, which was about Smith’s character, Jim West, received critical acclaim. Later that year, he released his second solo record, Willenium, a play on words for the new millennium approaching. It also peaked at number five on the Billboard top 200 making it Smith’s highest peaking solo album. The album’s lead single, Will 2K was another hit for Will (and sampled The Clash’s Rock The Casbah)while the other song everyone remembers from Willenium is Freakin’ It, famous for Smith challenging other rappers to use less profanity.
In 2002, Born to Reign was released. By this time, Smith earned his first Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Muhammad Ali in the Michael Mann biopic, Ali, and was seemingly invincible. This however is the Will Smith record no one really talks about. I mean, I certainly don’t know anyone who owns it. It was Will’s lowest selling album by a large margin. Its first single was Black Suits Comin’ (Nod Ya Head) which was the theme to the film sequel, Men In Black II. It’s worth nothing though that Jada appears on the song, 1,000 Kisses. She would go on to venture into music herself forming the heavy metal group, Wicked Wisdom.
In 2005, Smith released his final album, Lost and Found. It created some buzz at the time of its release for some of its lyrics on the track, Mr. Nice Guy addressing comments made by Eminem years prior. In 2000, Eminem responded to Smith’s challenge from Freakin’ It in The Real Slim Shady with “Will Smith doesn’t have to cuss in his songs to sell records/Well I do/So fuck him”. The single Switch was another popular track for Will and helped the album peak at number six on the Billboard Top 200 and was certified gold.
It’s been 10 years since Will’s last record choosing to focus on his acting. He made his name in hip hop for nearly 20 years and has earned his status as a legend in the game. His approach the genre with a different mindset which is well respected from fans and peers alike. Do you want to see him make a comeback?