You’d be forgiven for accusing Willow Smith of slipping into the zeitgeist pop-punk genre as easily as a garment. Her previous three solo albums cut a smooth path through alt-R&B and neo-soul with nary a guitar riff in sight. And her famous genes bypass the slog of other rock frontwomen of colour.
But Willow’s mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, fronted nu metal band Wicked Wisdom in the noughties. And on her fourth solo album, ‘lately I feel EVERYTHING’, Willow acknowledges the noisy alternative rock that flows through her blood. She pivots to guitar with a flair that affirms a genuine love of the genre, on eleven tracks that navigate pop-punk, nu metal, and grunge. The album is only 26 minutes long. Willow is still only 20 years old.
Lead single ‘transparent soul’ and third track ‘Gaslight’ feature Blink 182’s Travis Barker, the veteran pop-punk guest du jour. Both tracks are slightly pop-punk by (182) numbers, but the album as a whole breaks out of those lines. In fact, despite a Blink-style bassline and Barker’s characteristic heavy drum patter, ‘transparent soul’ sounds more like a Paramore song. Willow embodies that musical persona with relish, her vocals perfectly bratty and ripe.
Willow’s 2020 collaboration with Tyler Cole ‘The Anxiety’ opened the door to some heavy riffing, but ‘lately I feel EVERYTHING’ truly worships the guitar. The songs radiate thick bluesy riffs (‘don’t SAVE ME’) and sledgehammer shudders (‘Lipstick’), conjure a Bikini Kill-type loose ruckus (‘F**K You’), or skid into the distance with a car tyre squeal (‘Gaslight’).
A lot of anxiety persists on this album, too. The lyrics chew over preoccupations and paranoia – stardom’s ass-kissers, oppressive and taxing relationships, the isolation of mental pain, love’s bittersweet temporary nature, the longing for independent space and peace – in a way that suits both the genre and Willow’s vocal range. She moves from slow drawl to controlled shriek on ‘naïve’, and channels the spirit of the Cranberries’ late, great Dolores O’Riordan on the languid, grungy ‘4eva’. ‘Lipstick’ recalls the elastic vocals of Willow’s earlier hits ‘Whip My Hair’ and ‘Wait a Minute!’, and ‘XTRA’ arrives soaked in attitude with a killer rap verse from Tierra Whack.
While the self-love lyrics of ‘Gaslight’ skirt the realms of Disney, ‘GROW’ goes the whole hog. It shouldn’t work, but with a guest verse from Avril Lavigne, it’s guaranteed to locate the weak spot of anybody who grew up listening to the pop-punk queen. And at a smart two minutes long, the track doesn’t outstay its welcome.
There remains something slightly hollow and self-consciously perfect about ‘lately I feel EVERYTHING’ – like a television version of a punk band. Even the varying song structures and mangled titles seem manicured. Yet these highly competent songs, polished if not profound, provide easy, harmless fun – and what’s more, given the skill and stardom of its creator, the album has the power to raise the profile of other guitar-wielding women of colour. And that’s never a bad thing.