To some, the name Willow Smith is all but an automatic musical signifier for the track 'Whip My Hair' which, despite releasing in 2010, sounds like a cheesy bop from the mid-90s. Regardless of whether her debut single is now seen as irksome or not, her fourth full-length record, 'Lately I Feel Everything', is about as diametrically opposed from her child-friendly crunk roots as possible, blending hard-hitting pop-punk with relaxed R&B in a wonderfully direct way. It doesn’t break either genre wide open, but the mononymous WILLOW handles herself exceptionally well in both camps.
From the very first pounding note of the lead single, 't r a n s p a r e n t s o u l', Smith establishes herself as a force of honest, snappy punk. Energetic and concise, the smashing 'Gaslight' follows in the opener’s footsteps, creating dextrous melodic contours alongside punchy, simple lyrics. While the third track stomps on the rather bleak topic of being emotionally manipulated, Smith’s enunciation and vocal prowess make everything sound incredibly powerful, making for a juxtapositionally upbeat arrangement.
Conversely, the ephemeral '4ever' feels composed and laid-back, almost as if serving as a breather from the other, more rigorous tracks. Lyrically, it addresses emotional volatility, with Smith passionately proclaiming that, to some extent, all relationships are temporary (“I know, you know, we know, this can’t last forever”). Sure, it’s a simple expression that isn’t necessarily originally phrased here, but its musical membrane is appealing and intimate.
In some ways, every track can be categorized as either unswerving punk inspired by the likes of Blink-182 – whose drummer Travis Barker appears on three of the album’s 11 tracks – and Buzzcocks ('Lipstick', 'G R O W') or washy R&B laced with brisk rap ('don’t SAVE ME', 'XTRA'). Some tracks, like the chorus-drenched 'naïve', start a bit generic, making them less-than-stellar companions to the record’s wholehearted authenticity, though not disturbingly so. Sometimes, the mixes are a bit muddy, almost drowning out the humble power of Smith’s voice. There may be loads of instrumental elements competing for sonic attention, but the vocals certainly could have been accentuated more.
At just 26 minutes long, 'Lately I Feel Everything' is hardly a profound or even prolonged experience. In fact, it sometimes feels a bit too quick, with most of its tracks coming in at or around three minutes in length. Overall though, hardly anything is forced and it all feels well presented and devilishly melodic. If WILLOW continues to explore the gritty, more mature confines of pop-punk, her next efforts are sure to be both accessible and brutally honest.
Words: Hayden Godfrey
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