She sold over a million downloads of her lead single “Whip My Hair” back in 2010, but her subsequent singles charted lower and lower - perhaps unsurprisingly considering she was Nine. Years. Old. Four years on, from the embers of her premature pop project, emerges an unexpectedly wise child musician, with an eclectic batch of influences and way more staying power than a simple head swing pop gimmick.
Four days ago, Willow uploaded a new track to her Soundcloud page, dubbed "Your Love". The beat ripped off The xx’s "Basic Space", the sound quality is decidedly homemade, and her vocal take isn’t exactly perfect. Isolated, it could be assessed as standard, but within the context of the recent solitary lo-fi creative meanderings of a thirteen year old girl, it actually becomes a damn interesting moment for the Willow Smith continuum.
It feels weird to be analysing the music of a girl who is younger than the Playstation 2, but, as the daughter of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, an established child-actress and the youngest artist on Roc Nation, she isn’t exactly your average tween. Her astronomical lead single "Whip My Hair" was clever in its content to gauge mass appeal without relying on today’s steadfast ideals of sex or wan fabrications of love (though, with a childhood star, it was kind of forced to be so), but follow up tracks "21st Century Girl" and "Fireball" (below), struggled to resemble anything other than a naively parented but well-financed adolescent dream project, even with the fumbling featurette of Miss "hitmaker" Minaj herself. And their commercial performance reinforced that.
These songs, released between 2010 and 2013, were building towards an album, Knees and Elbows, which was eventually shelved. And in February 2013, Will Smith explained to the audience of Real Talk at Philadelphia's Temple University that Willow was taking a bit of a breather from the fast lane of her childhood:
“"Willow was supposed to be doing Annie, we got Jay-Z to do the movie, got the studio to come in and Willow had such a difficult time on tour with “Whip My Hair” and she said, 'You know Daddy, I don't think so,' and I said, 'Baby, hold up!' I said, 'No, no, no, listen, you'll be in New York with all of your friends and Beyoncé will be there. You will be singing and dancing,' and she looked at me and said, 'Daddy, I have a better idea, how about I just be 12.'”
Willow dropped out from the lead role of Annie, halted her current musical direction and, except for the brief outing of non-single "Summer Fling", went pretty quiet...
Things changed about a year ago, when the track "Drowning" appeared online. The stripped back piano ballad, not dissimilar in tone to Britney’s "Everytime", utilised her vocals to max effect, and kicked off a spate of new songs. The Knees and Elbows era was over. Hair that once whipped, was now sheared off. The Soundcloud era had begun, and with it Willow’s music had evolved.
It continued four months later, when she dropped "5" featuring her brother Jaden, and clearly influenced by his hip-hop associations. The Ta-Ku production sounded more Brainfeeder than Roc Nation, or like a lost beat from Tyler’s Wolf, and featured Willow rap-singing over the top with an astral intensity. A few months later, during this summer, she surprisingly appeared on stage at a SZA gig, providing lead vocals for a mutoid r&b jam called “Domino”. And then came her much-publicised cover of King Krule’s “Easy Easy” just one month ago; a smooth and cruising take on the jagged realism of the original.
The imperfection in the vocals of her Soundcloud era work is probably the most exciting new development in her music, railing heavily against her over-produced past. Unlike the highly comp’d and stainless vocals of her Knees and Elbows singles, her voice on the most recent track “Your Love V2” is now elastic - quite biting in its clarity, but still tremendously soulful; easily switching from sweet cooing to deep and punchy phrasing, that sounds exactly like a kid fervently projecting their youthful sass. And too fucking right.
Nabbing a beat from The xx on this track continues what seems to be an anglophile trait of hers. It started with her nicking of Radiohead’s "Codex" beat for “Sugar and Spice” in 2013, and continued with that King Krule cover. These reference points are a long way from the upbeat dance and stylised hip-hop production that first became associated with her. In fact, Willow is starting to sound more like a baby of Baduizm, than a miniature Minaj.
The cover of King Krule doesn’t just represent a good taste in tunes, it also symbolises an acknowledgement for other young musicians who decided to do it their own way from a very young age. Archy Marshall might look like a world-weary, twenty year old XL Recordings staple right now, but he started, only two years later than Willow, by putting his poetic blues on Bandcamp at the age of fifteen, as Zoo Kid. Likewise, Willow has publicly championed the Atlanta teenager Raury on her Twitter, who began writing his own songs at fifteen. Raury professes accelerated childhood, and the rise of so-called ‘Indigo Children’ in his musical concepts - the idea, in his own words, that “the youth of my generation have an edge in life thanks to growing up in the Internet Age. Because of that, we are more inclined to have a great job or a sense of direction about where we’re going in our lives earlier on.”
It seems young Willow, unlike many of her adult counterparts in pop music, has realised that to make the biggest difference with her art, she needs to re-ground, embrace the limitations of her abilities and make honest music that doesn’t just identify with her own generation, but has the power to define them. Or, in her own playful words: “I just want to make music so that I can raise the consciousness level on this planet. Lets all come together in light, love and harmony through oneness with ourselves and All That Is. Enjoy.”
That might all seem a bit serious, but maybe we should start taking Willow more seriously. Plenty of artists develop from lo-fi, self-written hype-tracks on Soundcloud and sell themselves out into prosperous pop smashers, but not many do that in reverse. Whether it was Willow or her team's decision to reign it in and focus on her artistic purism is unknown, but it has put the young girl in a unique situation, that is resulting in unique decisions and a much more everlasting development. You’ll still get the haters snap-judging that any attention she gets is because of who she is, but just show me another fourteen year old making music this promising right now.