Jaden Smith- SYRE Album Review
(By: Thomas Rodriguez)
Jaden Smith debuts his music career with a rollercoaster of an album.
For most people, Jaden Smith is one of two things. He is either: 1) Will Smith’s son, whose pretentious tweets are way too absurd for their own good, or 2) that one awful kid actor in that awful M. Night Shyamalan movie, After Earth. However, at least for now, he’s extended his talents to the music landscape with his first proper album, SYRE. Sure, he’s released a handful of mixtapes and EPs in the past, but this is his first true foray into music as a whole. And it’s one hell of a spectacle.
Admittedly, my first trip through this album was a real struggle. The fact that the son of Will “Gettin Jiggy Wit It” Smith was picking up the family mantle of rapping was equally fascinating and horrifying. Even while enjoying the instrumentals a considerable amount, I couldn’t get over the way Smith presented himself as a savior. After some heavy self examination of my ability to get through 70 minutes of Jaden Smith, as well as some doubting of my musical taste, I sat myself down, and put on the album again. And it clicked much more the second time around.
Right off the bat, I have to give the ex-Karate Kid props for his ambition, what with SYRE being 70 minutes long. There are a couple of extensive songs too, with “Hope” lasting six minutes, “Ninety” lasting almost eight, and “Lost Boy” clocking in at nine and a half. This also applies to the grand intro of the album, made up of four songs that spell “BLUE”, which was so long it needed to be broken up into four continuous songs. Jaden Smith is very serious about his music, and expects us to take it seriously, so the fact that he took proper care to make a well flowing tracklist helps alleviate the absurd idea that yes, Jaden Smith is attempting to make a musical magnum opus.
The “BLUE“ intro, in a way, is a great representation of the pros, and cons, that go along with SYRE. “B”, the first song in the tracklist, was actually a great opener. Willow Smith’s great vocals, and the plinking xylophone are actually quite dramatic, and the beat change in the second half of the song is actually quite excellent. Jaden Smith’s rapping in the second half was actually complemented well by the thick bass and tribal drumming, and while his lyrics were not anything to write home about, his energy is contagious. “L”, the next song in the series, is equally well produced with its subtle guitar chords and equally deep bass. However, Smith’s lyrics here are absolutely terrible. Not only does he consider himself to be Kendrick Lamar and Martin Luther King (no I’m not kidding), but he’s gonna start his own school because apparently no one else is learning anything in the world. It’s moments like these where I have to ignore the awesome sounds and just groan at how the pampered Jaden Smith is out here to save the world. “U” and “E” make up for these flaws again, especially with the powerful “falling down” lyrics and wild guitars on “U”, and the slick bass line on “E” backing up Jaden Smith’s slightly better wordplay on this song.
The sounds shown off on “BLUE” apply to the production in SYRE in almost every single way. These are the best bits of the album, by far. Straying from the typical trap and bass that most rappers find themselves on nowadays, Smith’s producers go quite experimental in a few places on this album, and they mostly work! The sounds given on “Ninety” and “Lost Boy” are equally woozy and nocturnal, and sound wonderful to the ear. They also provide a great podium for Smith to speak from in his performance, as it’s usually flat (or whiny) throughout the album. With the quiet acoustics on “Lost Boy”, Smith’s voice is definitely improved with every stroke of a chord. The beautiful keys and punchy drums on “Ninety” give off a great vibe and kept me interested throughout the lengthy song. When the production changes into something more hard hitting, such as on “Icon”, or “Watch Me”, the energy is explosive. The lavish, hard-rock influenced guitars on “Icon” give the song a real punch, and the sampling of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” by Jaden’s producers on “Watch Me” give Smith’s voice an edge that normally wouldn’t be there. The electronic dance beat on the song “Falcon”, despite being relatively boring in the first third, dramatically improves in the second and last third, and got me bobbing my head as I was driving to school. Even some songs that I blatantly dislike (for reasons that I will get into later) have some merit in their production; I love the plinking keys on Breakfast and the druggy drums and synths on George Jeff. The sounds here are varied, they’re well done, and they’re exciting. I actually wish more mainstream rappers took as many sonic risks as this album does.
Despite the love that I have for the production here, I do have a certain problem with some of the songs here. Namely, the way the songs are structured. The way they are presented to the listener, in a way, should work with what Smith is trying to go for. He’s trying to flex his musical muscles and show just how in depth his songs can go, so he strings out the length. Which is fine, if done well and the song justifies its length. However, Smith’s idea of “quality equals length” doesn’t really add up to well. Sure, I loved “Lost Boy”, but the honeymoon phase had flown out the window by the six minute mark, and when I saw I had three minutes left I had to fight myself to not press the skip button. As for the song “Hope”, the song didn’t really need to be six minutes. Or three. As a matter of fact, the song was so awful with its bland instrumental, that it shouldn’t have even been in the album at all. Save yourself six precious minutes of your life, and skip this song. Unfortunately, the prolonged songs are not the only issues I have with the production as a whole; by the time the song “The Passion” starts, there seems to be a lack of the great production we had heard earlier. With its “yuh” flows and trap instrumental, this song starts a trend of basic flows and skeletal instrumentals that scream of SoundCloud influence, but not the good kind. It’s just noise, and by the end, SYRE fizzles out instead of going out with a bang.
However, these problems are minimal as a whole, compared to the big issues SYRE has. These instrumentals are just basic, not necessarily bad. What is bad is Jaden himself, as a songwriter and a rapper. This was my biggest fear going into this album, and while I usually enjoy being right, I wish I were wrong here. As I mentioned earlier, Smith’s performance is usually extremely flat or monotone, which is improved a huge amount by the production, but it’s still worth mentioning. There’s no charisma or unique sound in his style, save for maybe his whining about his “struggles”or his savior complex. His well documented life of privilege definitely eliminates any struggles that Smith may go through on this album, and his lack of description for his mental issues makes it seem as though they aren’t really there to begin with. The savior complex is prevalent throughout the album, especially on that God-forsaken song “Hope”. Its Pentagon references, claims of becoming MLK, and lack of good punchlines made me consider turning off the music entirely and driving in silence. And again, this lasted for six minutes. There are rarely any clever, or standout bars throughout the album as a whole, just a lot of empty braggadocio that isn’t presented with any charisma or humor, nor any emotional storytelling because again, Jaden Smith doesn’t give us a reason to be sympathetic with him nor gives an interesting performance, good wordplay, or even any personality. If a mannequin was rapping, it’d be no different.
The idea of Smith saving rap and humanity as a whole, introduced on the song “Breakfast” carries little to no weight whatsoever. Anyone who has an A$AP Rocky feature and wastes it for a self congratulatory pat on the back, as in this song, deserves no credit really. While Jaden claims to be knowledgeable of things us common folk don’t know, they’re all borderline comical (the Illuminati is real guys, Jaden Smith said so!). The one time this works to his benefit is the song “Batman”, where Smith’s obsession with the caped crusader is incredibly tangible and funny, even if it wasn’t meant to be. His flow is so simple, and his lyrics so absurd that they work to his benefit in a so bad it’s good kind of way. This was one of the few times that Jaden Smith as a protagonist was likable, and didn’t shove his savior complex down your throat and ear canals. If only that happened more often.
In short, this album as a whole was just okay. Some good moments, some awful moments, and some moments that could’ve been skipped. The fact that we got any good is, in and of itself, an accomplishment, as Smith can be pretty….odd. But hats must be taken off for the producers on this album, because their soundscapes are actually very impressive and saved this album from its own self imposed “struggle” and “wisdom”. If there was an instrumental version of this album, I would listen to the whole thing. But as it stands, Jaden may have to deal with being second place in the Smith family rap rankings.
Tracks to save: B, U, E, Ninety, Batman, Icon,
Tracks to Skip: L, Breakfast, Hope, The Passion, George Jeff