On ‘Falling For You’, the wholesome, Justin Bieber-featuring track from Jaden Smith’s new mixtape ‘CTV3: Cool Tape Vol.3’, Will and Jada’s son croons in a sickly-sweet manner “I think I’m falling for you”. By the very next line, though, he’s delivering a dead-pan punchline in the same saccharine tones: “If you don’t call me, I’ll jump off the roof”. It pretty much sums up our idea of Jaden: sincere yet knowing, over the top and wilfully juvenile, but also completely hilarious.
It’s easy to hate on someone like Jaden – too easy, in fact. Sure, he’s perhaps best known for his teenage years spent serving up New Age musings, wacky headline-baiting hijinks and very philosophy undergrad tweets. A few years back, you could find Jaden one minute tweeting about trees being blue, the next comparing himself to Galileo. And when he was not being accompanied by his own shaved-off dreadlocks as his date to the Met Gala, he was taking his own Gold disc as his plus-one. But all the while you got the sense that the wunderkind prankster was in on his own jokes.
This sense of absurdity has often seeped into Jaden’s music too. 2017’s ‘SYRE’, his grand statement debut, was bold, overblown and jam-packed full of unwieldy and unfiltered ideas. His synapses seemed to be sparking in about a gazillion different directions. The record shuffled through trap, techno and ambient folk, with lyrics as head-scratchingly obscene as his Twitter feed: “Girl I’m Martin Luther, Martin Luther King / Life is hard, I’m Kamasutra-ing” he rapped on ‘L’. We’re still trying to work out the ‘George Jeff’ line: “Baby call me Willy Wonka / On my Oompa Loompa steez.”
However, the problem has always been that Jaden’s music – although interesting and sporadically exhilarating – has never matched his self-proclaimed genius. “One day in the future people will understand the things that I say. And then they’re gonna look back and be like, ‘Damn’,” he said at the time of ‘SYRE’’s release. Jaden Smith was 19 years old at the time. Perhaps he will indeed turn out to be his generation’s William Blake, unrecognised in his time, but three years on and the record is still the sound of someone struggling to find their own voice in the public eye, all too indebted to the influence of others: part ‘The Life of Pablo’-era Kanye, part early-day Childish Gambino.
While the follow-up to ‘SYRE’, last year’s ‘ERYS’, mostly continued in this vein of brash and meandering cinematic trap, Jaden’s new release – the third in his ‘Cool Tape’ mixtape series, coming six years after his last entry, 2014’s ‘CTV2’ – finds the now-22 year old in a more mature place. He’s a bit more serious, abandoning his sideward glances at what his peers are up to, instead looking back through pop’s canon for inspiration.
Learning guitar for the project, ‘CTV3’ leans into the classic pop sound of The Beach Boys, David Bowie and The Beatles (Jaden has cited ‘Sgt. Pepper…’ as his all-time favourite album). Jaden recently told Zane Lowe that wants “to be able to say something that can change someone’s life and then for generations to go by, and still be able to change people’s lives and make them want to be better people and to spread love”.
Largely chronicling his life between the ages of 15 and 17, ‘CTV3’ has been billed as a pseudo-prequel to the more angsty ‘SYRE’. Obviously paying homage to bands as huge and ubiquitous as The Beatles is hardly the most left-field of about-turns, but – as was the case with Frank Ocean’s retro-tinged ‘Nostalgia Ultra’ – these classic pop influences serve as a perfect backdrop for sifting through memories. These sounds encapsulate the youthful vigour and naivety of young love.
The album’s highlights arrive when Jaden wholeheartedly leans into the kind of sunny songwriting that has recently inspired the likes of Rex Orange County and the new wave of wholesome Gen Z stars. ‘LUCY!’, the title of which being a not very thinly veiled reference to a certain Fab Four song, has the breeziness of the Beach Boys’ early surfing odes, while ‘Falling For You’ is a Randy Newman-style lullaby that just veers on the right side of all-out schmaltz.
Elsewhere, ‘In the Hills’ incorporates some John Mayer-like reverb guitar, while quarantine love song ‘Cabin Fever’ is a ’70s-indebted bop in a similar vein to Harry Styles’ ‘Watermelon Sugar’. Occasionally Jaden attempts to merge his rap and pop influences, as on opener ‘Circa 2015’ or ‘Rainbow Bap’. More often, though, he simply reverts back to autopilot. The likes of trap-ish ‘Everything’ or one-note ‘Bad Connection’ could use some of those added flourishes.
Lyrically, he’s a bit more toned-down than before – though that isn’t to say he doesn’t still manage to drop in the odd whopper. “Since when is thinking different breaking the law?”, Jaden wonders on ‘Sunburnt’, the lyrical equivalent of an overly sincere thinking face emoji. He soon shifts the conversation, though: “Bae, you like the moon / I need a peek of the backside”. ‘Deep End’, meanwhile, opens: “I wish you loved me like your cell phone”. Modern love in a nutshell there, eh?
On one of the album’s latter tracks, ‘Endless Summer’, he utters the line: “If I’m looking for a copycat, I never gotta search, it’s right here”. The irony, of course, is that by continuously searching for different sonic guises to try on, Jaden himself is often the copycat. While his detour into sunny surf-pop shows how adequately the breadths of his talents can expand, we’re still left pondering who, musically, the real Jaden is. Well, this is the man who once asked: “How Can Mirrors Be Real If Our Eyes Aren’t Real”.
Release date: August 28
Record label: MSFTSMusic / Roc Nation