Jeff Pearlman

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Is Will Smith a great rapper or a hack?

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My son Emmett and I are engaged in a summer-long shitty movie marathon, which has taken us from “From Justin to Kelly” to “Batman and Robin” to “Catwoman” to “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to, most recently, “Wild Wild West.”

Of all the films, “Wild Wild West” was—hands down—the worst. Why? Too many reasons to count. Bad acting. Bad directing. Awful use off green screen. Unsustainable plot. It was an awful flick that didn’t seem to know it was awful.

Anyhow, as bad as “Wild Wild West” is, that level of awfulness doesn’t compare to the title track, “Wild Wild West” by Will Smith (who also stars in the film). If you’ve never heard this monstrosity of sound, I beg of you—take a listen. It’s as if Rap Satan thought to himself, “I’m gonna reunite the sonics of Young MC with the goofiness of Kid n Play with with very lowest of MC Hammer.” It’s that terrible.

And it had me thinking: Is Will Smith a great rapper or a hack? I mean, on the one hand in 1988 he won the first-ever Rap Grammy (as part of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince). On the other hand, “Wild Wild West” is merely a taste of the silliness-to-the-rhythm stylings he used to corrode the world.

So—good or bad? Terrific or terrible?

Here’s a career retrospective …

“Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” (1987; “Rock the House”): The first release from Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. So here’s the thing: My 16-year-old nephew might listen to this and think, “Jesus, that’s so goofy.” But back in the mid-to-late-1980s, we were still in the era of Run-DMC, LL Kool J, Kurtis Blow. This was fresh and funky and Jeff’s scratching and mixing (plus the sampling from the “I Dream of Jeannie” theme) was insane. (Grade: A)

“Parents Just Don’t Understand” (1988, “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper”): First huge hit … and it was h-u-g-e. Not gonna lie—everything about this song is fantastic. It’s funny, it’s smooth, it’s stylish. The video is iconic. My kids love it. Their kids will likely love it. (Grade: A+)

“A Nightmare on My Street” (1988, “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper”): This was probably the first flashing neon sign of some trouble. Yes, it’s a funny song with a funny video. But it sounds a lot like “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” which sounds a lot like “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble.” Great artists can diversify their styles, their approaches. (Grade: B)

“I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” (1989, “And in This Corner …”): Trouble officially begins. You’ll laugh at this song the way you laugh at a joke you’ve heard six times. To be polite. Out of fatigue. The act was getting old. (Grade: C-)

“Jazzy’s Groove” (1989, “And in This Corner …”): A big problem. This is the best song on the album, and it’s entirely about Jeff. The rapping is just awful; more shouting than smooth. Unlistenable. (Grade: D-)

“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song (1990): In a weird twist, this is probably Will Smith’s most famous song—and the endeavor launched what would become one of modern culture’s biggest acting careers. As for the song itself? Well … yeah. It’s pretty much a knockoff of “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Which is fine, if you’re in to that sort of thing. Interesting side note—the music was written by Quincy Jones. (Grade: C)

“Summertime” (1991, “Homebase”): I’ll catch shit for this, but “Summertime” isn’t merely the best song ever released by Jazzy Jeff and the Prince—it’s one of the best rap songs ever released. Period. It’s vivid. It’s real. The opening scratching is fabulous. The line, “the smell of a grill can spark of nostalgia” is a universal ode to the eternalness of being 16 and free. (Grade: A+)

“You Saw My Blinker” (1991, “Homebase”): Smith curses (Bitch!), which happened only once in his entire hiphop career. But the song is bad. Really bad. It’s the sad sound of two guys trying to find a new sound—and failing, miserably. Smith is trying to channel Rakim. He’s no Rakim. (Grade: D)

“Men in Black” (1997, “Big Willie Style”): I hate raps created specifically to tell the story of a movie. Hate. But … this song works. It’s from Smith’s first solo album, and it’s creative, peppy, smart, fun. Not usually my thing. But … hey. (Grade: B+)

“Getting’ Jiggy with it” (1997, “Big Willie Style”): I recently tried explaining this song to my 10-year-old son, who loves Nas and Tupac. He didn’t get it. In hindsight, neither do I. This is, factually, a very poor song. The rapping is terrible, the lyrics are so … stupid. It’s a no-calorie ode to the brain power that, two decades later, would elect Donald Trump president. God, I really detest this thing. (Grade: D)

“Just the Two of Us” (1997, “Big Willie Style”): I have a friend named Mike who cries in chick flicks and is a sucker for cheese. He thinks this is an all-time classic. It’s not. I’d say, around this time in my life, I really started to understand the empty-calorie meal that Smith offers as a rapper. I don’t doubt his intent here. But … Lord. (Grade: C-)

“Miami” (1997, “Big Willie Style”): By now I really needed some sort of suicide plan. It’s the same … song … he’s … done … 100 … times. (Grade: D)

“Freakin’ It” (1999, “Willennium”): The line “My last check for Wild Wild West came on a flatbed” says it all. What started a decade earlier as an earnest effort to bring fun hiphop to the masses has, by now, become about the money. Which is fine. But the resulting product speaks loudly. And badly. (Grade: C-)

“Wild Wild West” (1999, “Willennium”): The worst rap song ever created. I am not exaggerating. (Grade: F)

“Black Suits Comin’ (Nod Ya Head”): (2002, Born to Reign): Trying to sound like Dr. Dre—but instead of rapping about bitches or the streets, he’s rapping about a movie. It’s over. (Grade: F)

•••

In conclusion, Will Smith began as a very good rapper.

He ended as a hack.

But a wealthy hack.

  • Ted Mark

    Who cares whether Will Smith is a hack. If you call “The Day the Earth Stood Still” a crummy movie, you better be talking about the Keanu Reaves remake. Otherwise, you and me got problems.

  • Olaf

    Where’s “Boom! Shake the Room”? MIddle school me thought DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were funny & awesome (note: virtually no exposure to any other rap or hip hop) in the span from He’s the DJ thru Homebase, and I’ll still stand by a lot of it based on nostalgia. But I recall it as Boom! was their effort to go more in a gangsta rap direction (or whatever) and it sucked.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

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