“But aaaaaaaaaaaaah, Calm down Willy
You don’t wanna drop the bomb now Willy
Keep a nice flow for your mom down in Philly
On the news you go if you blow and act silly, you know”
— “Mr. Niceguy”
With apologies to Jim Abbott, I can only imagine what it must be like trying to garner any sort of respect in a game where you’re basically playing with one hand tied behind your back. It’s no secret that Will Smith refuses to “curse” in his songs, a credo that he mostly sticks to for the entirety of Lost and Found. That’s fine, and eminently doable. Trying to battle without curses, however, is another thing entirely — it’s like chopping a dictionary in half and telling an artist he can only use the words from ‘N’ to ‘Z’. Even so, the curseless battle is a major part of Lost and Found, which finds a surprisingly confrontational Smith taking on everyone from Eminem to the Christian Far Right, with a fair number of traditional Will Smith party bangers interspersed throughout the proceedings to lighten the mood.
And somehow, some way, he made it work.
Here’s the secret: Even the battle tracks play like party tracks. Smith is at his best when he’s in Fresh Prince of Bel Air mode, taking down his subjects with a little sarcasm and a lot of smirks, complete with all of the nouveau-riche raised-in-Philly inflections that might imply.
Rap radio (and the type of artist it favors) is generally Smith’s favorite target of derision, which I suppose is understandable enough given that no matter how many copies of his albums he seems to sell, he’s never really taken seriously as a hip-hop artist. “Get that (I wish I woulda made that) / Lean back (I wish I woulda made that) / I wish I woulda told the girls to drop it like it’s hot,” he reflects, doing his best Fat Joe and Snoop impressions, while also noting that “Summertime” seems to be all he’s known for anymore. Still, “I Wish I Made That” is so friendly and good natured in its sound that Smith’s listeners and detractors are more likely to laugh at his impressions than to take the song as any sort of rallying cry. This is a shame, given that the social commentary of lines like “ignorant, attacking, actin’ rough / I mean, then will I be black enough? / Oh wait maybe I’ll jack a truck / Full of cigarettes, guns & drugs & stuff” gets lost in the atmosphere.
Seriously, Bill Cosby must eat this stuff up.
He mentions Eminem, Larry Elder, and Wendy Williams (twice) as well, but the worst he can do as far as personal insults are “fat and ugly” for Wendy and “Uncle Tom” for Larry. He’s actually more effective when he’s not saying anything, brushing off his enemies because he’s got more important things to do — like, say, lamenting the state of the world. Tapped as the second single from Lost and Found, “Tell Me Why” starts with a poignant tale of Smith trying to explain the events of 11 September, 2001 to his son, finishes with a bunch of other, unrelated “why” questions, and brings the ubiquitous Mary J. Blige along for the ride. It’s lyrical ground that’s been tread millions of times before (most recently and similarly by Jadakiss in his own “Why?”), but Smith does a fantastic job with it, kicking out the sensitive style talking to his son and then unveiling a far more aggressive, ironically Eminem-esque yell as the song climaxes toward the end of the second verse.
It’s over the course of that climax, however, that the major paradox of Lost and Found is most obvious — one line of the song yells “Why the f*** can’t love seem to conquer hate?” That’s right, Smith drops the f-bomb, and then promptly censors himself with an all-too-audible BEEP so he can keep saying he never curses on his records. Much as it’s obvious that he’s trying to include the word to add power to the song, the fact that it’s bleeped out means he’s trying to have it both ways, implicitly asking the philosophical question of “if I say the f-word and nobody actually hears it, did I really say it?” That aside, if Smith was really trying to set some kind of example, why is it that his definition of a curse word seems to be limited to things you can’t say on prime time TV? And the guest appearance from Snoop Dogg, on “Pump Ya Brakes”? Trying to bump up your credibility is understandable; including a guest who regularly extols the virtues of pimping and weed in the most profane of ways is not, even if he keeps it clean on your record.
Of course, the moral dilemmas only really come into play if you’re looking to buy the album for your kid. Assuming none of that bothers you, Lost and Found is a playful mix of the old, fun Will Smith (D.J. Jazzy Jeff even shows up to produce opener “Here He Comes”, riffing on the old Spiderman theme song) and the new, serious, and even sort of angry Will Smith. Every “Ms. Holy Roller” (a diatribe on the exclusivity of born-again Christianity) is tempered by a “If You Can’t Dance (Slide)” (whose title should make the subject matter obvious enough), the two types of tracks coexisting peacefully in a mélange of tight Neptunes-lite / Timbaland-style beats and Smith’s typically smooth flows. Plus, if you’re just buying it for the single, there are three versions of “Switch” here to keep you dancing into the night.
Somewhere along the way, Smith lost his musical appeal, be it via constant, blatant commercialism or simply a decline in skills. Now, it seems, he’s found the qualities that made him such a joy in the first place; the only question remaining is whether anyone is still listening.