The musical evolution of Willow Smith: how a child star became a pop sensation

She's had a go at alt-pop, soulful R&B and even pop-punk – and excelled every time. Is there anything the genre-busting polymath can't do?

Having Hollywood polymaths for parents comes with a creative freedom many of us dream of every day. However, with the world hot on your heels waiting for you to trip up, this freedom comes with unwarranted pressure too. And many famous child stars have succumbed to this pressure, but when you look to the famous offspring of multi-award winning Will Smith (who’s basically the world’s favourite uncle) and the multi-faceted ‘90s legend Jada Pinkett-Smith, Jaden and Willow – sorry, that should be all-caps: WILLOW – have done themselves proud.

But no one talks enough about the youngest Smith, one of the few R&B stars to truly stay unproblematic in an industry that thrives on chaos and shocking headlines. Her stealthy nature is admirable, because the only thing the world truly can judge her on is her music – and what a glow-up it has been, as we shall see. With her upcoming record ‘Lately I Feel Everything’ due next month, we look back on WILLOW’S fascinating journey so far.

Whipping it to the top

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This exuberant youngster broke the mould at the age of just 10 years old, giving us debut single ‘Whip My Hair’, an electronic-inspired hip-pop track that utilised the thumping bass of popular grime sounds at the time. The seminal 2010 hit has cemented itself as a classic years after its release that nearly made her the youngest star to earn a UK Number One (Black Eyed Peas nudged past her with ‘The Time’, alas).

In this era, WILLOW wasn’t doing your average tween pop star singing about boys, heartbreaks or offering some sort of clichéd motivational spiel. She was futuristic in her approach, her early single feel-good anthems that made kids feel like superheroes (especially ‘21 Century Girl’), no mean feat before you’re even a teenager. This invincibility has remained a constant in her music.

From tween pop to alternative star

WILLOW at Tyler. the Creator’s CAMP FLOG GNAW carnival in Los Angeles in 2015. Credit: Getty

2015’s ‘Ardipithecus’ was WILLOW’s debut album, a hearty experimental pop piece that was closer to M.I.A’s ‘Arular’ than Britney Spears’ ‘Blackout’. She welded clashing sounds together to create rebellious music that still sounds stunning in its uniqueness. She was only 16 when it was released, but ‘Ardipithecus’ has stood the test of time. At first, music critics weren’t feeling the D.I.Y feel to the record – Pitchfork wrote: “Willow wrote and produced this album, and it shows”, putting down the choppy production techniques now trendy in current experimental scenes such as glitchcore.

The singer was contributing to an alt-R&B scene that, at the time, didn’t receive as much exposure as it should have. Albums such as LA singer Tinashe’s debut ‘Aquarius’ were overlooked in favour of the hip-hop/R&B crossover sound that was super popular at the time, with the likes of Omarion’s ‘Post To Be’ stinking up the airways instead. Finally, though, the world is now ready for WILLOW’s trailblazing.

Solidifying herself as a true artiste

WILLOW in 2017. Credit: Getty

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The star progressed hugely as an artist from ages of 10 to 16, as you’d well expect. Delving into her artistry even more, she gave us her most subdued record to date, the 2017 album ‘The 1st’.

Released on her 18th birthday, the LA native’s second studio album saw her stack together beautiful tracks that weren’t layered with the synths that defined its predecessor. This time she moves into a more orchestral approach, utilising her multi-instrumental skills. On tracks such as ‘Warm Honey’, you can hear WILLOW’s quirky lilt atop a simple drum sequence and electric guitar strums, evoking that electric feeling you get at a live jazz club. ‘The 1st’ refined her sound: thoughtful neo-soul reminiscent of Brit legend Sade.

Rocking with a whole lot of soul

Willow Smith performs with Wicked Wisdom
Willow Smith performs with Wicked Wisdom. Credit: Red Table Talk

It’s the refined WILLOW we see today, especially in her current TikTok viral bop  ‘t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l’, a pop-punky tune featuring Blink-182‘s Travis Barker. Ready to push every boundary when it comes to alt-R&B, the youngest Smith hasn’t lived in her parents’ shadows at all. Let’s not forget that her dad began his career as a rapper; the youngster might have made life easier for herself if she’d chosen that route, but ultimately she chose her own path. She has revealed herself to be a grunge fan, telling V magazine that her new look is ‘a little bit of grunge, a little bit of punk”, and has even performed with her mum’s old band Wicked Wisdom – there is nothing WILLOW can’t do.

The future is hers

She’s graduated from famous teen to an adult whose love for the art of music making outshines all, and it’s been wonderful to watch the star’s evolution. It will also be fascinating to see which side takes the foreground on ‘Lately I Feel Everything’. Will the 21 year old give us another laidback, emotional sound in the style of ‘The 1st’, or is her ‘t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l’ here to stay, and she’ll venture into punk rock? One thing’s for sure: whatever it is, the record will surely prove that WILLOW is a musical chameleon who single-handedly shredded what it meant to be a celebrity’s child.

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