If you’re the scion of Hollywood royalty the way that Willow and Jaden Smith are, the best the rest of us can really hope for is that you’ll use the immense resources available to you to do something interesting in the world. If that’s the challenge issued to Willow–the fifteen year old daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith–then it’s one that she seems to have heard loud and clear. Despite some goofy, self-conscious pretensions (like the ones she and brother Jaden dropped in an interview with the New York Times’ T Magazine last year), Willow Smith surprised us all on Friday morning by releasing her debut album, Ardipithecus, without advance warning (and seemingly in direct contrast to her dad’s assertion that “kids don’t make albums any more”)–and it is a decidedly weird, interesting statement from a teenage artist who has no need to chase pop stardom on traditional terms.
The album runs fifteen tracks, and Smith has the sole songwriting credit on 14 of them, according to The Fader. She also claims sole production credit on 10 of the album’s tracks (the other credits go to Smith’s older brother Trey, who produces music as AcE, and Smith’s frequent collaborator Jarah Aubrey, who goes by Jabs). That means that, when listening to Ardipithecus (named for a genus of extinct hominine that lived in Ethiopia), you’re really listening to as unfiltered a take on what kind of music a 15-year-old girl like Willow Smith wants to make as you’ll ever get the chance to.
The results on Ardipithecus run the gamut of genres–there’s some organic instrumentation and accessible pop sounds on the album (the traditional R&B of “IDK” plays like a breath of fresh air in the middle of the album), but much of it is aggressive and uninterested in, say, hooks and choruses (like opener “Organization & Classification”). It sounds like Willow Smith might have gotten really into Nine Inch Nails (or at least Boots) during the time she spent putting together much of the album, which makes it interesting to listen to–there aren’t many teens making music this complex and singular by themselves, at least not that get to find a mass audience.
Of course, given the sort of things that Willow Smith said in that T Magazine interview (example: “Time for me, I can make it go slow or fast, however I please, and that’s how I know it doesn’t exist”), it’s not necessarily a surprise to find that her debut album isn’t a polished bid for pop stardom–she seems like she might be a weird kid, perhaps intentionally so. But that doesn’t really matter on Ardipithecus, because the album doesn’t sound particularly self-conscious about its weirdness. Compare it to an album like Know-It-All, the recently-released debut by Alessia Cara–an artist who’s only a couple of years older than Smith–which has good songs, but which sounds much more self-consciously crafted to reach a big audience, and it seems more clear that Smith means what she’s doing here. At the very least, if what we get to see on Ardipithecus is a persona, she’s hardly the first teenager to adopt a pretentious identity because that’s what she thinks is cool.
She is, however, in the unique position to make the kind of record she wants to make, without having to worry about commercial concerns. Not only are few teenagers in that position (even Lorde and Taylor Swift, at the start of their careers, worked with a lot of producers), few artists of any age can chase their own muse as freely as Willow Smith can. The fact that the unique, idiosyncratic music that Smith put on Ardipithecus also happens to sound pretty great is just icing on the artistic cake here. We rarely get to hear music like this with so little filter on it, and the fact that it takes someone like Willow Smith to create so freely doesn’t make the fact that this is what she’s chosen to do any less significant. If anything, it just makes her–and her music–even more interesting.