Smith's perfect timing and rhyming Review: The rapper who became a TV star who became a movie star brings back his rapping at just the right moment.

November 25, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Will Smith has terrific timing. It was evident in his early days as a rapper, when the singles he cut as the Fresh Prince were as celebrated for their well-timed wit as for the smooth flow of his eager-to-please rhymes. It was even more obvious when he moved to television, where his puckish portrayal of a homeboy in Beverly Hills made "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" an unexpected comic smash.

By the time he moved to the big screen, Smith's sense of what-to-do-when had been honed to a razor's edge. Muhammad Ali didn't have a better-timed hook than the one Smith used on the alien in "Independence Day."

It figures, then, that the Artist Formerly Known as the Fresh Prince would know precisely when to return to rap. With gangsta and hard-core in decline, and pop-friendly Puff Daddy productions ruling the charts, the time couldn't be riper for an album as amiable and accessible as Smith's "Big Willie Style" (Columbia 68683, in stores today).

From the readily recognizable samples (Chic's "Good Times," Kool & the Gang's "Celebration," Patrice Rushen's "Forget-Me-Nots") to the occasional cameos (Camp Lo, Larry Blackmon from Cameo, Left Eye from TLC, even Smith's fiancee, Jada Pinkett), the emphasis is on familiarity. Even the conceit connecting various tracks on the album -- in which a buffoonish journalist named Keith B. Real crashes the album's launch party -- is predicated on our awareness of Smith's stardom.

There's nothing new about that, of course; rappers have made nTC their own magnificence part of the music from the first. What's interesting is that no matter how boastful Smith's rhymes may be, he never comes across as conceited. Instead, it's treated almost as shtick, treating Smith's "yeah, I know I'm good" shrug as a sort of comic trademark.

That's why "Yes Yes Y'All," in which Smith asserts his right to hip-hop respect, seems almost modest compared with most I'm-bad boasts. Smith may be into living Big Willie style -- that is, letting the world know what a big deal he has become -- but even the look-at-all-I-got lyrics he sprinkles through "Miami" and the title track come across more like pages from a Richie Rich comic than odes to conspicuous consumption.

Some of that has to do with the amount of fun Smith has with his wordplay. "Candy," for instance, finds Smith reworking the Cameo oldie as a tribute to a cute girl. But once he gets sweet-talking this little honey, he can't get his mind out of the candy store. "Be my Peppermint Patty with a hundred wishes/And I'll be your Hershey daddy with a hundred kisses," goes one rhyme, with Smith adding, "We could Snicker all night at my Jolly Ranch."

It isn't all just cleverness and charm, of course. When Smith gets together with his old DJ, Jazzy Jeff, on "It's All Good," the rhythmic interplay between Will's rhyming and Jeff's scratching makes the lyrical cuteness seem secondary. There's also an unmistakable sincerity in Smith's remake of Bill Withers' "Just the Two of Us," in which the rapper makes a convincing show of his love for his son.

But even if the bulk of "Big Willie Style" rides on easy hooks and Smith's ingratiating personality, so what? This is pop music, pure and simple, making no pretense to anything deeper. And if that happens to be the kind of music that sells these days, well -- what else would you expect from someone with Will Smith's timing?

Smith samples

To hear excerpts from Will Smith's release, "Big Willie Style," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6146.

Pub Date: 11/25/97

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