The first time I ever became aware of Jaden Smith’s existence was when I watched Pursuit of Happyness (2006), starring him and Will Smith, for the first time as a child. I encountered him again in The Karate Kid (2010) and through his infamous guest verse on the accompanying Justin Bieber song “Never Say Never”. Five years later, I learned he’d been making music under his own name for a minute. While I wasn’t exactly blown away by his initial output, I liked a few tracks and recognized his musical potential. His unique image also appealed to me; he had been very much initiated into the mainstream as a product of Hollywood, but had evolved into an outsider.
However, also around this time, it became evident to me that the general public disapproved of Jaden’s artistic endeavors. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t crazy about his music. From social media, I gathered that people generally thought him to be a corny lyricist and corny figure in general. His faux-depth rapidly became a meme, and the fact that he was tweeting shit like “How Can Mirrors Be Real If Our Eyes Aren’t Real” at the time didn’t exactly help his case. Even now, a lot of people seem to believe he is only successful because of his background of being Will Smith’s son and consequently growing up with considerable wealth and fame. I’ve also seen people–mainly straight males–hating on Jaden for wearing women’s clothes; though, all that really says to me is “oh no, you’re hurting my toxic masculinity”. Anyway, despite my skepticism of his early art and persona, I decided to continue following his endeavors, holding out hope that he would one day make something worthwhile.
Fast forward to November 17, 2017, and here we are with the release of his debut album SYRE (2017), a project that I had been genuinely excited for on the basis of his stellar single, “Fallen”, that he released late last year. There wasn’t anything too perplexing about the track; it matches an extremely simple beat to Jaden’s typically corny delivery and some lovestruck lyrics, but I was nonetheless enamored by the overall vibe of the track. I was also impressed with his appearance on Tyler, the Creator’s newest album Flower Boy (2017), on which he delivers a catchy hook to the track “Pothole”. Just a few weeks before SYRE’s release, he posted snippets of videos that featured music from the album on Instagram, and nearly every one sounded good to me. At this point, I fully believed in him to make a project that would prove all the naysayers wrong. And now that it’s finally out, I think he delivers exactly that with SYRE. For the most part.
The intro track “B L U E”, which is technically four tracks in one (though it sounds more like twenty), each titled a separate letter, immediately grabbed my ear with its off-the-wall, erratic production from Lido, featuring keys from Tyler, the Creator. There must be at least five beat switches in this first sequence alone. It seems like Jaden is trying to implement as many ideas as he can into the shortest amount of time possible, but I think this ambitiousness goes over extremely well. The first bit of “B” features some Christmas-sounding chimes and a Willow Smith feature. The track transitions into a beat that gave me a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) feel. In fact, across the rest of “B L U E” Jaden continues to spit verses over a bouquet of grand, rich beats that remind me a whole lot of that album. It makes for a seriously intense intro that’s all over the place (in a good way).
The song “Falcon” is another one in which the scattered song structure comes off really well. We have Jaden and Raury switching off between singing and rapping; Raury’s verse is superb, and Jaden gives a decent performance himself. It features a really bouncy beat with some 80s nightclub synths, but switches this format multiple times throughout the track. It keeps the listen refreshing and captivating.
Upon first listen, I thought the opposite was true of “Lost Boy”, a track which I was originally turned off from, mainly because it sounds like the same thing for nine minutes; it lacks any change in direction or momentum, which ultimately steered my attention away from it after the first few minutes. The palavering shoutout section at the end of the track is kind of annoying to me in that it’s clearly a nod to what Kanye does at the end of “30 Hours”, which was one of the most unnecessary moments on The Life of Pablo (2016), even if it did feature Andre 3k doing background vocals. But after a few more listens, this easily became one of my favorites on the album. Even though it’s just nine minutes straight of Jaden talking about being a lost soul, I came to really enjoy it as just a simple, sonically-pleasing, uncut vibe song that you can throw on at any time. In that aspect, it’s another one like “Fallen”, which is probably my favorite on the whole thing. The second half of “Ninety” is definitely one of my favorite moments as well. The first half was decent; it slightly reminded me of some Drake shit. But the soundscape of the second half was immensely powerful and raw; the searing guitar and pounding drums are reminiscent of Harry Styles‘ “Sign of the Times” from earlier this year.
“Icon” is likely to be one of the commercial standouts from the album; its beat is too crazy to ignore. I love the howling vocal sample and the brassy synth on this one. Jaden’s delivery here is more aggressive than anywhere on the album, and he comes through with some decent linesand a memorable chorus, which has a pretty cool vocal effect on it. “George Jeff” is another slap with a good Jaden performance. “The Passion” is also decent, I like the siren-like beat and the PSA-sounding hook. It abruptly transitions to a heartbroken Jaden singing softly over a piano ballad, which I didn’t mind either.
As its sprinkled with small monologues and lyrics, as well as the spoken word closer “SYRE”, the album certainly seems to be fit with an underlying narrative, which involves a character named Syre (played by Jaden), a girl, and a sunset. I’m guessing the film counterpart that’s set to release in 2018 will be focused on explaining and expanding this story. At times, the project feels more like a movie scene than a hip-hop album; the cinematic quality shows a strong influence of Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet (2013), a modern masterpiece of a concept album. I feel like the purpose of the incohesive structure of this album was an intentional contribution to this cinematic scheme. During certain stretches, the songs on this album felt like one elongated piece, while other instances would turn a complete 180 in terms of mood. Nonetheless, the mutable arrangement of the album didn’t particularly bother me.
Throughout the album, you can hear the influences of Jaden’s icons, namely Gambino, Kanye, Frank, Tyler, Drake, and Cudi, and I think for the most part, he incorporates them pretty well. But there are a few moments where I think it’s a little forced. I was indifferent to “Batman”, which just has a slew of forgettable one-liners and features a tribute to Drake and Future’s flow on “Jumpman”. The beat of “Watch Me” sounds almost identical to Kanye’s “Black Skinhead”, and to me, Jaden doesn’t really do anything with the song that Kanye didn’t do better. Both of these songs were dropped before release, and I was never fond of either. I guess I wouldn’t mind Jaden making these reskins of other songs if they were written better. Anyway, I was slightly disappointed to see them appearing here, especially “Batman”, which I originally thought was just a throwaway he wanted to put out and doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the album. Without these, the album would’ve felt a bit more concise and focused.
Furthermore, I’d be lying if I said the writing on this project isn’t a major shortcoming. For me, the primary reason for this album not being an album of the year contender are the bars. Some of the bars here are damn near Big Sean level of corny. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but you get what I mean. Jaden consistently makes me feel like he gets lazy with his writing, as he’s certainly shown in the past that he has the potential to be at least a decent lyricist. There’s multiple instances here where he uses the same bars as he did on previous tracks. And he abuses the popular triplet flow for nearly half the album. I’d say that on this project, the writing is only just bearable. Topically, there wasn’t anything too deep; I appreciated the vulnerability he showed on a few moments here. I also liked a lot of the braggadocious performances. However, there were a few times when he got annoyingly preachy about sociopolitical matters, matters that I wasn’t sure he fully understands. Hey, at this point, I consider myself a Jaden fan, but I’ll be the first to say he’s probably one of the last I want covering shit like that.
A less significant gripe I had was the lack of a verse from A$AP Rocky on the track “Breakfast”, where he is indeed advertised as a feature. The only place he appears is near the middle of the track where he’s just speaking with his typical deep-voice changer effect, which in all fairness does set the song up well for a beat transition. Seriously, I think Rocky would’ve killed that second beat.
Overall, I thought this was a thoroughly enjoyable listen. Jaden finds a nice pocket between experimental sounds and trendy trap beats; from a production standpoint, the album was fantastic. I thought the unconventional songwriting worked in most places on this album, and, combined with the great production and melodies, provided some beautiful moments. While the lyrics and delivery left something to be desired at times, I think with some more maturation and focus (the guy’s only 19), he can iron those flaws out and craft a project that’s truly great in his future discography. In any case, this album stands as the first real manifestation of Jaden’s artistry, and what it brings to the table proves that he should be taken more seriously by the media and listeners alike. It’s crazy to think that the kid from The Karate Kid, of all movies, would end up making something like this, but I’m on board for it.
Best tracks: Icon, Fallen, Lost Boy, BLUE
Worst tracks: Batman, Watch Me
Written By Anthony Vega