Willow’s fourth solo album continues to unpack her lifelong struggles with the extremes of human emotion, using a trove of pop-rock stylings from nu-metal to pop-punk to somewhat mixed effect.
Willow Smith wants to enroll at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study physics. She wants to learn about the “beautiful mystery” of the unseeable, she says. But all that’s apparently five years away. In the meantime, she’s written an unofficial honors thesis on a different imperceptible force: anxiety, and the sentiments that come with it. Just before the pandemic lockdown last year, she and her creative collaborator (and alleged beau) Tyler Cole rented space at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where they locked themselves in a box for 24 hours to perform the “eight stages of anxiety.” Songs from the duo’s recent album, fittingly titled The Anxiety, played on loop. This ambitious project left unanswered questions: She and Cole scribbled “Why Are We Here?” and “What Inspires You?” onto MOCA’s walls, without an apparent reply. Willow’s fourth solo album continues to unpack her lifelong struggles with the extremes of human emotion, using a trove of pop-rock stylings from nu-metal to pop-punk to express joy and fear, pride, and paranoia. Or as the record’s title puts it, lately I feel EVERYTHING.
Willow’s pivot to snot-nosed power chords and down-tuned riffs might raise eyebrows after a three-album run of smooth R&B twinged with folksy mysticism. But her fascination with the harsher sounds of rock feels like a natural progression, one that marries her family’s musical history with her self-professed love for the genre. Willow grew up watching her mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, perform as a rare nu-metal frontwoman with her band Wicked Wisdom. She easily rattles off her musical inspirations—My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Fefe Dobson—and, perhaps because of her mother’s musical past, feels comfortable with the finer points of hard rock subgenres: She covered Wicked Wisdom for the Red Table for this past Mother’s Day, but in interviews, she’s careful to distinguish that sound from the more “youthful” bent of Zumiez rock.
On lately I feel EVERYTHING, she and her co-producer Cole expand on their capabilities as rock composers and musicians. Both are passionate guitarists, something they hinted at with bluesy riffs on previous albums. But from the opening measures of “Transparent Soul,” the guitar is paramount—it’s filtered and faded on the pummeling intro of “Gaslight,” swirling and reverberated on “naïve,” slow-burning and brassy on “Come Home” and “¡BREAKOUT!” It’s also a markedly louder backdrop for her vocals—on songs like “Gaslight” and “Lipstick,” she belts with impressive control, shouting tonelessly one moment and gliding across several notes in one syllable the next. The marriage of disparate rock subgenres works because her instrumentation shares a common early 2000s perspective: the echoing guitars on “XTRA” recall the disaffected pop-rock of Pink’s Missundaztood or early Kelly Clarkson. And in a nod to the legacy of the ribald ringleaders of Warped Tour’s past, she throws in “Fuck You,” a predictably explicit 30-second interlude, as if to show that she knows evoking this particular era of rock requires a flippant sense of humor.
Where previous albums were often weighed down by Willow’s heady spiritual preoccupations and heavy-handed musical idolatry, lately I feel EVERYTHING succeeds when it examines human feelings. Willow writes skillfully about the experience of anxiety: The desire to push away loved ones on “don’t SAVE ME,” the painful self-awareness of “naïve,” and the need for connection paired with fear of codependency on “Come Home” all ring painfully true and impressively nuanced. She has a knack for knowing when her words might be stronger on someone else’s tongue, too—on “Grow,” one of several Travis Barker collaborations that feel at home on the Fueled by Ramen roster, she recruits sneer queen Avril Lavigne, her nasally alto coming in like a warm, fingerless-gloved hug from pop-punk’s past. Like many of the genre’s biggest hits, it’s so saturated with hooks that it succeeds in spite of its slightly facile writing; more importantly, at just over two minutes, it lays everything on the table and gets out before the melodies get old.
Still, there’s a hollowness at the core of her pop-punk explorations. Perhaps it’s harder to relate to her struggles with sycophants and stupendous fame on “Transparent Soul” than, say, the pains of unrequited love or the frustrations of adolescence. Her messages about the power of self-love on songs like “Gaslight” feel too enthusiastically optimistic, like a motivational speaker signed to Hopeless Records. And, as with many of the pop-punk revivalists who’ve been taken under Barker’s wing, her songs with him sound a bit prefab, as if Barker was simply flipping between presets on the Blink-182 machine. Though he likely means well, Barker’s influence on current mainstream pop-punk has overwhelmingly flattened the genre, reducing it to his undoubtedly impressive drum solos and a few shiny power chords. Willow succeeds where Barker’s other prodigies—Jxdn, Machine Gun Kelly, Yungblud—falter because she, similar to Olivia Rodrigo, uses pop-punk as a spice, rather than her album’s main ingredient.
Willow also shares her contemporaries’ lack of awareness about what’s happening elsewhere in pop-punk, claiming that she wants to bring back the sounds of her youth without acknowledging that, in plenty of local scenes, they never went away. In multiple interviews, she’s talked about the importance of being a rare Black woman in rock: “[Dobson, Pinkett Smith, and Alexis Brown of Straight Line Stitch] were the only three Black rock singers that I knew of, so really I just wanted to make this album as an ode to them,” she told SPIN. Willow’s foray into pop-punk undoubtedly raises the profile of Black female vocalists, who have been shut out of a scene with a history of racism and sexism. But her enthusiasm also neglects the work of plenty of pop-punk vocalists who are women of color, like those of Pinkshift and Meet Me @ the Altar, who’ve carved their lanes without the help of TikTok stardom or famous parents. It’s just simpler for stars like Willow, Lil Huddy, and The Kid Laroi to “revive” pop-punk if they ignore the grassroots groups who’ve kept it alive since its LiveJournal days.
And so lately I feel EVERYTHING ends up stuck between its intent and its effect. She uses the genre to work through her struggles with mental illness, but her songs still sound unwaveringly optimistic, as if she knows her every move is still under a microscope. Her ambitions are bold, but the album has a sense of polished remove that prevents it from scaling real emotional heights. Willow shines in her darker, introspective songs, when wistfulness tinges her voice and the guitars are washed in melancholy. She might not be trapped in a literal box, as she was at MOCA last year. But metaphorically it’s still there; she still seems too worried about self-presentation to excavate those anxious questions she scrawled on the museum walls.
Buy: Rough Trade