Will Smith exercises bragging rights

Review: A little full of himself, yes, but the actor and rapper proves on his newest CD that he knows how to have fun -- taking us along for the ride.

November 16, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Self-esteem is not an issue for Will Smith. Nor should it be, when he's box-office gold at the multiplex and certified platinum in the CD stores. If ever a rapper had a life worth boasting about, it's this guy.

So it's easy to forgive him for the fact that his latest album, the modestly titled "Willennium" (Columbia 69985, arriving in stores today), opens with a barrage of boasts that would make even an egomaniac blush.

"Y'all want the best? Well, I'm right here," he crows in "I'm Comin'," a rap about how untoppable and unstoppable he is. And not just in the rap arena, either. "Young George Bush, I'm thinkin' about running," he warns in the last verse. "Maybe not this time, but trust me -- I'm comin'."

Then there's "Will 2K," which Smith modestly describes as "the new Millennium -- excuse me, Will-ennium." To his credit, he does, on "Freakin' It," cop to being a "quintessential megalomaniac," but just as quickly shrugs it off.

"Not conceited," he says, charmingly. "I'm as good as I say I am."

Well, no -- nobody's that good. But, braggadocio aside, Smith's track record has given him more bragging rights than the average rapper. In addition to being a TV and movie star (from "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" to "Independence Day" and "Wild Wild West"), Smith is one of the most successful artists in hip-hop, with several Grammys, more than 20 million in sales, and a string of hits dating back to 1988.

Not that these achievements have earned him any respect from the rap world. Smith's clean-talking, straight-living, pop-friendly approach is anathema to the hard-core aesthetic of hip-hop's thugs, doggs and gangstas, and Smith knows it.

But he doesn't care.

"My grandma told me before she died/Smart folks don't need to put no cursin' in they rhymes," he raps on the album's opening track, and Smith is as good as his word about the bad words.

In fact, he makes sure that even his guests keep it clean -- no small feat, considering that he has cameos by such edgy artists as Slick Rick, Li'l Kim and the Ruff Ryders' Eve.

Smith doesn't stop at profanity, either. One of the most moving numbers on "Willennium" is "Afro Angel," the story of a girl who falls for a street hustler and begins to realize that the money he makes from dealing is not worth the risk or ugliness of the drug trade. So she tells him that if he doesn't quit the business, she'll walk.

Were Smith obsessed with the cliches of street cred and "keepin' it real," he would have ended the rap with either him dying or her being sucked back into the life of a drug dealer's girlfriend. Instead, Smith has his man realize that the family he's made means more than money, and so he leaves both the streets and the city behind to ask the girl to be his wife.

Corny? Maybe. But "Afro Angel" speaks to a deeper reality than almost any of the gangsta rap on the charts these days.

Still, rapping his way to a happy ending is part of the reason some rap magazines consider Smith "soft."

He may laugh at the charge -- "Yeah, more like Microsoft," chortles the self-described "Will Gates of the rap game" -- it isn't just his refusal to go foul-mouthed or nihilistic that has the critics carping.

For all his bluster, Smith is incredibly easy to please and tends to build his singles around fairly familiar hits. "Will 2K," the current single, tools along on a funked-up loop from the Clash hit "Rock the Casbah," while "Can You Feel Me?" grounds its groove in Michael Jackson's "Working Day and Night," and "Freakin' It" takes its cues from the Diana Ross hit "Love Hangover."

To his credit, though, Smith's sampling is rarely as simplistic as Puff Daddy's loopin'-the-oldies formula.

It isn't just that Smith's tracks shape up like songs, offering more than the usual rhymes to the beat; he and his producers also take liberties with the source material, adding bits that weren't in the original. So even though "Wild Wild West" owed a lot to both Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" and Kool Moe Dee's "Wild Wild West," there are also parts that are pure Will Smith -- and that makes all the difference.

Add in the joyous abandon of "Pump Me Up," in which Smith and D.J. Jazzy Jeff slice and dice the old Trouble Funk hit in a dazzling show of old-school skills, and it's easy to see why Smith thinks so highly of himself.

"Willennium" may not be the album of the century, but you can bet it's going to rule the radio for months.

Celine Dion

Having a great voice isn't enough to make a singer a star; there also has to be some degree of interpretive magic at work. In that sense, Celine Dion's greatest strength isn't the power or luster of her pipes, but the insight and joy she brings to each song. Dion is a singer of such innate musicality that she's able to make even the tritest tunes seem positively luminous.

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