Since he performed that featured verse on Justin Bieber’s “Never Say Never” and showed off his truly phenomenal acting chops in The Karate Kid remake, I’ve been waiting patiently to see exactly how Jaden Smith’s multifaceted career would unfold. “Raised by the power of Will” and Jada Pinkett-Smith, the 19-year-old has always had a bright-hot spotlight waiting for him, should he want to use it.
Like his younger sister Willow, the rapper/singer/songwriter/philanthropist/clothing designer has become known for being “weird,” embodying artistic individuality, eccentricity, and outspokenness on social issues. (In 2016, Smith modeled a skirt in a Louis Vuitton women’s wear campaign—becoming the first male to model women’s clothing for the brand—and then went on to wear women’s wear for the rest of the year in an attempt to combat gender-conformist bullying in schools.)
In November, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith released his massive debut LP, Syre. At 17 tracks and 70 minutes long, it’s dense and ambitious as hell. Inspired by the work of Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and James Blake, Smith plays, somewhat messily, with genre and song structure. The project is a coming-of-age story that casts Smith as a “living Icarus,” and sees him progress into manhood, stunt on his haters, and try to get his girl back. The album includes rapping, singing, spoken-word segments, apocalyptic rhetoric, new-age thinking, and teenage melancholy, but it’s the crisp, expansive production that most consistently characterizes Syre.
The album starts off with “B,” which features a sermon by Willow about creation (Adam and Eve) and the usefulness of NyQuil. It’s actually the first in a four-part suite, which also includes “L,” “U,” and “E.” The four opening tracks are apparently the reason the album took three years to complete. The album is also fun on shuffle; Smith is genre-fluid enough to incorporate folk, metal, and hip-hop elements. There’s xylophone plinking, acoustic guitar licks, and raging guitars on songs like “U” and “Watch Me.” Tracks like “Icon,” “George Jeff,” and the nearly 10-minute-long “Lost Boy” are damn near irresistible.
One Pitchfork reviewer called Smith’s lyrics “crass,” “half-baked,” and “insulting to one’s intelligence,” but even if you’re not sure what the hell is going on, Syre is a very interesting listening experience—I’ve been bumping it for months and still don’t quite know what to make of it. (I chose to overlook Smith’s insinuation that 9/11 was an inside job orchestrated by the US government in “Hope,” in the same manner that I ignore B.O.B.’s flat-Earther status every time I listen to “Airplanes.”) Regardless, the album’s sound is criminally underrated.
And a lot of Syre’s sudden changes in sonic direction and seemingly disjointed messages are probably intentionally ambiguous. In an interview with Complex in November, Smith talked about a “one world vision” he has for the future, and signaled that only people from the future will be able to fully understand the album’s meaning.
“We’re just trying to get to that one world vision, where everybody can be in a world where there aren’t 16,000 children dying of malnutrition every day,” he said. “That’s really what I want to accomplish, and that’s why I’m doing this. All of this is really leading up to something that you’ll hear me saying a lot as I continue to promote the album: The one world vision is really what this is all about. We wanna get kids together to do cleanups and plant trees and different things, and that’s just scratching the surface of what we’re planning to do. We’re going to start to warm people up to this vision that we have.”
Shortly after dropping Syre, Smith announced via Twitter that his next LP is titled Erys and will be released sometime later this year. Erys, of course, is Syre spelled backward, and the album will be more focused on rapping than singing or storytelling. This month, Smith sets out on the “Vision Tour.” This show at Neumos will no doubt give fans a peek at what he’s dreamed up for the future—and probably an opportunity to buy some MSFTS Republic gear.