November 9, 1999
It takes some front to name the most talked-about epoch ever after yourself. Usually with such egos you'll catch a chink of uncertainty ...
8 / 10
It takes some front to name the most talked-about epoch ever after yourself. Usually with such egos you'll catch a chink of uncertainty, a glimmer of a fucked-up little human hiding behind some doctrine, drug or whatever. Not Will. Will is so damn sure of himself that all he ever says is "I'm great". Even when his career has evolved to the point where he is taking on board criticism, he still responds with "I'm great". Great, by the way, means successful. Will has no truck with the art-versus-commerce argument. They're both the same in his book. You think he's soft, too perfect for words? Well, says Will, just count my Grammies!
Trouble is, Smith's egocentricity is so damnably honest that the most you can level against him is that, when the charm wears off, he comes over a little on the smug side. The rest is, ugh!, sheer perfection.
On album opener 'I'm Comin'', the ego gets to work massaging the beliefs of his listeners and he can barely contain the hilarity of being Will Smith, prodigal entertainer: "You can't stop me... Ain't the second comin' of Christ it's the first comin' of me!" he jigs over his familiar 'whicketywhacketywoo' style beats; then there's a line about going for president. Smith's a Dr Evil in Mother Theresa sandals, it's churlish to dislike him (and anyway, "I retaliate by just being great", chirps the rapper) and impossible to hate him (go on, try it at home).
Strangely, the phenomenal popularity of Smith might just lie with his Einstein-like way with cunning mathematical formulae. For through years of comedic endeavour he has come up with a grand theory summating the essence of his appeal which he calls the Number-One Answer. The NOA, put simply, is the joke that both black and white think is funny but for different reasons (Smith puts it roughly by saying black audiences favour the rawer jokes where whites prefer the subtler, softer ones). "The Number-One Answer," explained Smith recently, "is better than the raw joke and it's better than the soft joke... it doesn't compromise either strength, it's the home run."
The successes, the numerous Hollywood blockbusters, the platinum albums, the telly shows, the singles, all come down to being perfectly, calculably mainstream. (Not to be confused with the lowest common denominator naffness that British 'pop' so easily embraces.)
Of course us being the 'alternative press' and Smith being the most exactly mainstream artist there is would make him our Number-One Enemy... shall we?
'Willennium' is postmodernly, surreally even, aware of its existence as a record in which hip-hop is taken to the ultimate limits of commerciality. On the Chic-sampling 'Freakin' It', Smith does the rap thing of taunting his assailants: "My last check for Wild Wild West arrived on a flat bed" and "All you rappers yellin' about who you put in a hearse do me a favour and write one verse without a curse". Then, with consummate vocal dexterity, he offers to "freak this", "You want me to freak this?" he asks the imagined audience, referring to his own song, before he explodes into full jiggyness.
Half the tracks follow this formula -; partied-up, pumped-up, knock-out rap records (especially Clash-sampling single 'Will 2K'). The rest are schmaltzy songs about brotherly love and stuff -; although a big shout must go out to the Lil' Kim collaboration 'Da Butta', a sexy-arsed, hot little number, and the song's not bad either -; but these are at the back end of the album and can therefore be easily ignored.
Forget the white boys stealing hip-hop, Will Smith has. If you try to take it back off him, he'll just laugh and do it better than you. Pissed yet? You won't be
To read all our reviews first - days before they appear online - check out NME magazine, on sale every Wednesday