Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Will Smith

Sound Familiar?
“Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” “Miami,” “Wild Wild West”

Who Is He?
Probably one of the most successful cases of a rapper-turned-actor in history.

In West Philadelphia, born and raised, Will Smith spent most of his days as one-half of the surprisingly successful hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. If you happen to be a child of the ‘80s, you’ll remember that catchy tune “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” If you were born a little too late, you should still know that song.

In fact, that song was so good it won the first ever Grammy in the Best Rap Performance category in 1989. Not bad, not bad.

DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince released five albums from 1987 to 1993. What’s even more impressive for this novelty hip-hop group is the fact that these guys have sold over 5.5 million albums in the US.

Due to a self-admitted “spendthrift attitude,” Will ended up blowing through $2.8 million and ditched paying taxes. Long story short, he got caught by the IRS and was forced to pay it all back.

In 1990, after releasing three albums with DJ Jazzy Jeff, Will took up an offer for a starring role in a little sitcom called The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That show’s theme song was the equivalent of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for just about every ‘90s kid. If you didn’t know all the words, you weren’t an American.

During the show’s run (1990-1996), Will released a couple more albums with his buddy DJ Jazzy Jeff and began to pursue acting full-time. His first lead roles were in 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation and 1995’s Bad Boys. After leaving The Fresh Prince in 1996, Will landed the role of a lifetime in the massive blockbuster Independence Day.

Will struck gold again in 1997 with Men In Black. Not only did he star in yet another blockbuster, but he also recorded a hit single for the film. “Men In Black” earned Will another Grammy for a rap performance (which seems kind of silly considering that the track was written for a comedy film).

That same year, Will released his first solo album Big Willie Style. The album’s lead single “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned Will yet another Grammy. This man is made of Grammys. It’s insane.

After starring in Enemy of the State in 1998, Will released his follow-up album Willennium in 1999. The record’s only major hit was “Wild Wild West,” a track recorded specifically for the film of the same name. (Fun fact: Will turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix in favor of a starring role in Wild Wild West. It’s okay, Fresh Prince. We all make mistakes.)

Where Is He Now?
Still active in the film industry, but also ready to make another album. Did I also mention that he’s one of the richest men in America? Yeah, the Fresh Prince is loaded.

Will took a break from music to star in 2001’s Ali (which earned him an Oscar nod for Best Actor) and 2002’s Men In Black II. Born to Reign, his third solo studio album, dropped in June 2002. While it didn’t achieve the platinum status of the first two records, Born to Reign garnered mostly positive reviews from critics (Allmusic gave it a 4/5 rating, which is pretty damn good).

After a couple more film roles, Will released Lost and Found in 2005. The record featured some heavy-hitters in the rap and hip-hop community (Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg, and Ludacris), but failed to achieve any commercial success.

Since the commercial failure of Lost and Found, Will has shifted his focus back to film. In 2006, he scored another Oscar nod for his role in The Pursuit of Happyness.

After roles in I Am Legend and Hancock, among others, Will began to favor working behind the scenes. In 2010, he produced the remake of The Karate Kid starring his own son, Jaden Smith.

But Why Will Smith?
People were actually begging for this entry and I originally thought they were kidding. Then I realized, “Hey! Will Smith is actually kind of relevant as a ‘90s icon right now!”

In case you didn’t know, Men In Black III hits theaters on May 25 (though Will doesn’t appear on the soundtrack). In music news, Will is actually in the process of recording a brand new album. Does this mean we’ll finally get another party anthem from the Fresh Prince himself? I sure hope so.

What Does Sam Think?
The whole rapper-turned-actor thing isn’t a new concept and Will Smith definitely wasn’t the first guy to make a successful transition (Marky Mark, anyone?). So in that respect, he’s not a special snowflake.

What’s really interesting about Will is his squeaky-clean rap career. At a time when rap/hip-hop was starting to get gritty (see N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton), DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince kept it radio friendly.

Unfortunately, this attitude kind of attitude discredited Will as a “real” rapper. He even managed to avoid Parental Advisory stickers on his solo albums. Sure, he’s been mocked by the rap community for sticking to his morals, but do you really have to be a so-called “gangsta” to be a rapper?

Will actually addressed this issue on Lost and Found. The album is a critique of the perceived state of hip-hop at the time. In the title track, Will speaks about how he doesn’t do the standard “sex, drugs and violence” songs as found in gangsta rap. In “I Wish I Made That Swagga,” he mentions the issue of not being “black enough.”

Since I’m not exactly a rap/hip-hop connoisseur, I’ll leave you to ponder the finer details on your own.

As far as his solo work is concerned, Will knew how to write a pop song. “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” is so ‘90s-tastic (in the best possible way). Listening to it now just makes me long for those delightfully simple pop hits of yore.

Maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking, but I miss Will Smith as a musician. Of course he’s a great actor, but I feel like he’s got another pop hit in him just waiting to emerge. Even if this new album ends up being moderately serious, I’ll still be excited to hear Will get back to his musical roots and see him return to his throne as the Prince of Bel-Air.

Yo homes, smell ya later!

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

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