Now, you may be wondering why I’ve decided to review a fifteen-year-old album by a man who seems to get more props for his movies than he does for his music. Well, my decision is based primarily upon those very reasons: Big Willie Style was the first Hip-Hop (/Hip-Pop, whichever you prefer) album I bought as a young teen; and Will Smith, the rapper, has always been one many “true Hip-Hop heads” often overlook when it comes to the craft of putting pen to paper and spittin’ on the mic.
Big Willie Style holds a special place in my heart, even to this day, for being the album that really put the “fun” in Hip-Hop music. Back in an era when the likes of 2 Pac, Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls were making names for themselves in the charts for their gritty depictions of the hardcore, urban lifestyle, Will remained true to himself in his writing, whilst inspiring many people to get up on the dance floors at the very same time via his charismatic delivery.
He got a lot of stick for it at the time, especially on the back of long-running sitcom The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, and box office smashes Bad Boys, Men In Black and Independence Day. Despite touring with the likes of Public Enemy with his long-time partner DJ Jazzy Jeff back in the eighties, a developing trend of hatred towards Will Smith and his music was becoming the norm as the rapper/actor grew in popularity.
I’ve heard a lot of people down the years label Will Smith “soft” and a “sell-out” because he doesn’t depict life on “the street”, but I’ve always thought of such opinions to be unfair considering Smith has always been open from day one about his upbringing. There are no attempts to put on a “tough” image with this album, as the case has often been with many young rappers modelling themselves on their Gangsta-Rap inspirations; Will Smith is Will Smith, and BWS gives a true reflection of the man here, more so than any of his movies have cared to depict.
Assisted by some ’80s-funk-sampled production, led by the legendary Trackmasters, BWS is primarily a party album, but has flashes of serious intent. It is Smith’s honesty, as well as his natural talent, that makes BWS a success in both of these departments, depicting his obvious fame (‘Y’All Know, ‘Yes Yes Y’All’), as well as the various relationships he’s had with women (‘Candy’, ‘Chasing Forever’) and developing family leadership that became a necessity as he grew older (‘Just The Two Of Us’).
BWS is upbeat and radio-friendly, and there’s absolutely no shame in it from Will’s perspective. There’s an easy-listening sense of personal achievement throughout; though when Will does pull a couple of “deeper” tracks out of the bag, they work very well, too. It’s hard not to want to get up and dance to the incredibly feel-good ‘Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It’; whilst, on perhaps the most surprisingly track of the album, ‘I Loved You’, Will manages to tap into the frustrations of a broken relationship (even coming across a little bit angry in the final verse).
Not many could get away with so many self-praising lyrics on one album, and even though the title track and ‘It’s All Good’ push the concept to its absolute limit, Will pulls it off. Contrary to popular belief, Smith does write his own lyrics, and in doing so has developed one of the smoothest flows in the game over time (it’s easy to see why he used to go by the name “The Fresh Prince” during his heyday).
Just listening to ‘Don’t Say Nothin’, we are able to hear Will defending his music with immense composure, targeting those who criticise him with a barrage of catchy and thoughtful rhymes, with stories of personal achievements and family lives all seamlessly linked together. It’s worth noting, also, the UK version of BWS also includes a (superior) remix of the track ‘Just Cruisin’, which is the epitome of Will Smith’s coolness.
He may be an even bigger movie star now, but especially in light of modern commercial music, Will’s contributions to Hip-Hop seem more relevant ever. He may not have the metaphoric mastery of Inspectah Deck or the political awareness of Chuck D, but Will Smith is much more than an actor who occasionally raps. Should he decide to come back to music, I truly believe he would eat up more than half of these so-called rappers making money in this day of age.