I love Lil’ Kim, but I do wonder what she’s doing on Will Smith’s unbashfully titled Willennium. Besides getting paid, I mean. The best I can guess, she’s playing Bad Girl Lite on “Da Butta,” so as to demonstrate her versatility and congeniality. Here she is again, not even out of breath after all her recent guest spotting (with Mobb Deep, Tommy Lee, the Lox, Lil Cease, et. al.), ready to tangle with Big Willie. Kim uses the chorus to coo about “the butter, baby,” while Smith boasts that, even though he’s married, he might “flirt a little.”
Shocking as this confession may be, he continues, renaming himself first “The King of Fun” and then again, “Johnny Inferno”—in an apparent effort to match Kim’s deep-throated promise to bring it “smooth and hot”—and noting (again and again) how many millions he’s worth. (Later on the record, he observes that he has his Wild Wild West movie money delivered on a flatbed: so what if it tanked in theaters?) If money is a sign of value, then this not-so-fresh prince is surely precious. And he can’t seem to get enough of himself: almost every track here extols the endless wonderfulness of being Will Smith.
On the first cut, called “I’m Comin’,” he opens with his trademark, thin-voiced invocation, “Ugh ugh ugh” (this being his second favorite signature phrase, after “ha-ha, ha-ha”) then sets up something resembling biblical drama: “Feel the earth tremble, see the skies turn red.” Of course, Will has a keen sense of performative humility, and so, he immediately reassures you that he’s not talking about the second coming of Christ, but “the first comin’ of me!” And yes, he warns “young George Bush” to look out, because he’ll be on his case soon. Smith seems to think that MC-ing is all about this showdown pose, and so he prates, “After the smoke clears, see who stands putting his mic into his holster, what!” Come to think of it, there are times when he sounds like an appropriate match for George W. Bush.
Smith’s political career notwithstanding, Willennium is an album about the future, specifically, Smith’s future cred on the hiphop front. And he and his longtime “potna” and producer-DJ Jazzy Jeff understand the business as it exists all around them: it is all about those benjamins. Just so, “Will 2K” (with K-Ci) is all about hyberbolic commercial enterprising, with its catchy “rock the casbah” hook (catchy enough to earn him New Year’s Eve emceeing duties on the DC Mall) and beguiling rhythms.
Interested in appealing to multiple demographics (which isn’t to say it panders to lowest common denominators or sells out, exactly), the rest of the album offers generic diversity, with the pop-Latin-grooved “La Fiesta”; the tinny-sad pop-ballady “No More” (on which Smith bemoans a lost relationship for which he takes the blame, and now feels caught “in a cage called me”: how poetic is that!?); on “Can You Feel Me” he raps with Eve, talking trash about Benzes and tight buttocks and swooshes, because, he knows, “everyone knows you want me baby.”
He knows this because he’s one of the highest paid performers on the planet, because everyone tells him so. Willennium reconfirms that Smith is good at accepting what he sees as his just due, good at his job, and a little less good at being self-aware, writing lyrics, and social theorizing. It reconfirms, in other words, what we all know.