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Music "WILLOW" does not want to be of this world

Aug. 9, 2019
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Thermal expansion. Ancient life forms. Shooting stars. These are just a few things Willow’s latest album brings to mind. The cry in Willow’s voice is a deep ache, a liberating ride, windows down. The first song off of WILLOW, “Like A Bird,” is just that: a bird-like cry. It’s an instant transportation into a natural world, but a world unlike this one. A formulaic world defined by mechanics and heat. Some sunsets, pink and purple like the cover of her brother’s SYRE album. This album is remarkably summer. Like Willow’s other albums ARDIPITHECUS and The 1st, WILLOW features divinely feminine anthems that we expect and even bask in. But you’re not meant to dance to this album, the way we’ve danced to “Oh No!!,” “Marceline,” and “Wait a Minute!” You’re meant to sway. Maybe just sit in silence and acknowledge the small space you take up in an expansive universe. There are no exclamations on this work, no bops. 

The danger of an album like this is the manufacturing of these transcendent ideas. Anything transcendent or subversive holds the risk of being misinterpreted, exaggerated, and frankly, memed, though not as badly as the way “Whip My Hair” was memed. For that reason, sinking into this album the way one would a Frank Ocean project, which holds some of the same spirituality and very little of the blatancy, is difficult. It takes the right environment. It takes low lighting and a particularly open and spiritual mood, maybe dark lighting and some sort of intoxicant. Take Willow’s track “Time Machine” for instance, with lyrics like, “Everyone is disconnected these days / 'Cause everyone is looking at the phone / Tryna feel like they are less alone (so wrong) / And I'm here to tell them that they're wrong (so wrong).” This statement lacks the nuance that is so critical around discussions of technology, but it also her opinion. An opinion that might sound preachy to those who have a different view. Even if the words so wrong are written in parentheses or background vocals, they stare you in the face, leaving little room for discussion or interpretation. It is not a deathly mistake, just slightly irritating, the same way that waiting for a hit in this album never materializes.

This seems to be Willow’s deep-cut album. These songs might not be her defining tracks, but every artist needs a background album within their canon, the kind their fans listen to while studying or falling asleep. As a body of work, WILLOW enacts this gentle movement quite coherently. Its transitions are seamless transportations to worlds unlike our own, flowing in and out, in and out, slightly up and down. “Them (interlude)” invites the listener to take a break from the short album and stretch, drink water, look outside. It is appreciated. 

Though the album is self-titled, it is maybe the least personal. It seems to reach out as far out as it can with its repetitive drum beats and plateaued sonic movement. A song like “Samo Is Now” performs this movement, and does it with sensitivity, inclining at the end into an ocean of what I imagine are sparkling reflections of stars and unidentified sparkles. In this track she sings, “The city is killing me,” expressing the desire to be with nature, perhaps to be a planet or a star but not necessarily a human. Many of Willow’s songs are uniquely alien. Not exactly in a figurative way, though they are unfamiliar to the mainstream ear. They are alien in the sense that extraterrestrials, even ghosts, would enjoy her prayer-like musings. There is something sacred about this ability to connect with a non-physical or otherworldly ether. 

Judgements of Willow’s character tend to become jokes about her spirituality, her place as a comedian and actor’s daughter. She becomes Willow Smith, daughter of Will and Jada, an all too solid human prop, emblem of pseudoscience and cosmic daydreams. But in “Female Energy, Part 2,” she sings, “I am human, I am woman / Drifting down my life.” She solidifies her identity in a way that manages to weave her physical self into the hazy cosmos. She is human, yet she drifts. She is woman, yet she is dust in the grand scheme of life. Who is Willow, really? Does she know? Does she want us to know? As my magic 8-ball would say, not likely.  

Willow has succeeded in creating a space for herself to grow, to be an individual that bends to no one and appreciates her place in the vast universe. It is unfair not to see this body of work for what it is: a well-crafted, ethereal body. WILLOW is a celebration of womanhood, of being a human faced with issues no other generation has dealt with, and displacing the materialistic nature of the world in favor of an evasive something-greater. What that something-greater might be is left for us to explore.