If you haven’t listened to Willow (Smith) since she scored a semi-novelty hit with ‘Whip My Hair’ in 2010, prepare to be surprised. Now 18, the daughter of Hollywood power couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith has reinvented herself as a freewheeling alternative R&B artist whose lyrics namecheck Kurt Cobain and pioneering street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
At 22 minutes long, this eponymous third album feels both slight and well-realised. Entirely co-written and produced by Willow and her boyfriend Tyler Cole, it’s a mellow and melodic blend of psychedelic folk and dreamy R&B built around gentle guitar strums and a few jagged riffs. Opener ‘Like a Bird’ initially seems as fey as its title, but then Willow adds a dash of darkness by singing, “Feel like a knife, as it burrows into me.”
Much of what follows is equally intriguing. The swelling chillwave of ‘Pretty Girlz’ has Willow commenting on society’s conventional beauty standards, while ‘Overthinking It’ seems to be about anxiety; “I know that sometimes I’m crippled by my mind,” she sings candidly.’Time Machine’ is essentially a hipster version of Charli XCX and Troye Sivan’s bubblegum bop ‘1999’. “Baby if I had a time machine, I’d go back to 1993“, Willow sings longingly. “Maybe I would play with Kurt Cobain, maybe I would get on MTV.” Sadly, Willow doesn’t tell us whether she’d also want to pay visit to her dad on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air set.
Brother Jaden delivers a decent rap on ‘U Know’, but otherwise this is fully Willow’s show, her overdubbed vocals giving the music its balmy and sometimes otherworldly charm. At times, she almost seems to position herself as a kind of teenage sage. “Everyone is disconnected these days, ’cause everyone is looking at their phone,” she sings on ‘Time Machine’. “Tryna feel like they are less alone, and I’m here to tell them that they’re wrong.”
Sure, it’s bit of a trite point, but most of the time ‘Willow’ is engaged and engaging enough to not feel like a talented rich kid’s indulgence.