Willow Smith isn’t afraid of discourse. Over the last five years, Willow has made the internet rounds again and again, for waxing poetic about prana energy, extolling the virtues of underground quantum mechanics classes, and calling herself a “light worker.” All of which could induce eye-rolling, until you listen to those themes play out on her newest record The 1st. A 17-year-old’s grasp on the world doesn’t normally cause this 30-year-old to take pause, yet I found myself challenged by the material and stunned by the delicate interplay between celestial and worldly motifs again and again.
The voice that enters into Willow’s opening track “Boy” sings with a confidence and maturity beyond her years. If the song is indicative of teenage relationships nowadays, the kids have grown up: “Anxiety attacks when he wakes up in the morning/And I can’t help the thought he thinks I’m boring.” Though Willow’s concerns are specific to her famous parentage (“I come from a cluster of super bright stars/And probably to him it feels scary to reach that far”) she makes them universal all the same (“Down on Earth there’s so much pain/But way up here we explore galaxies”). It’s a tone-setter for sure, separating this album from Willow’s 2010 hit song “Whip My Hair” and further exploring the themes set on her 2015 record ARDIPITHECUS.
While ARDIPITHECUS often felt like a kid fiddling around with Ableton Live, The 1st relishes its choices and takes its time, allowing the listener breathing room throughout. “Awkward Life Of An Awkward Girl” provides a pleasant piano interlude before sliding into the album proper, fearlessly flirting with the cusp of adulthood – first loves, those romances solidified over long philosophical talks after class, establishing a sense of self, encouraging new friends to do the same in a powerful voice. On the swooning “And Contentment,” for example, her vocal stylings reverberate with echoes of Tracy Chapmanand Lorde alike, swinging in the dichotomy between raw openness and youthful airiness. Overall, The 1st inspired settings within my mind: “Boy” was a cold New York City apartment; “Ho’ihi Interlude” a Hawaiian island overrun with volcano ash; “Israel” a diner on the outskirts of a small town.
“Warm Honey” is a turning point in the record, a place where Willow really hits her stride. A little sexy, a little 90s, a little woo-woo: “But then we fall back to earth / Fall back to life, fall back in strife / But then we come back to us / Learn how to love, bask in new light / I’ll be walking for miles, searching for miles / Trying to find myself / But then I realized I don’t exist.” “Human Leech” follows, its rock edge feeling fresh and retro all at the same time. These two songs are like the sides of a coin, the soft nature of human love versus its inevitable casualties.
The 1st leaves us with “Romance,” a song that parallels the album as a whole, speaking to how our everyday actions have reverberations. She sings, “Morality doesn’t exist/It’s a construct we breed into children who see/We create our paradigms/We create all our lives.” Willow is interested in love songs, but her innate ability to translate those concerns into a broader language that speaks about self-love, women’s roles in society, and our broader view of the universe lend a poignancy to her work – for her own generation and beyond.
Willow’s album The 1st is out now. See her open for Jhené Aiko on select tour dates starting November 14th.