Album Review: Willow – The 1st (Roc Nation)

The travails of gilded youth

If I had known who this 17 year old was before pressing play I might not have bothered. Singer and actress Willow Smith is the daughter of a certain Will Smith and therefore the kind of girl who gets to release an album on a whim, or so one imagines. But fortunately prejudices were absent at the time of the encounter and this meant that the musical and lyrical intelligence of this artist became clear through her art. It’s not Willow’s first release either, she had a hit with Whip My Hair in 2010 and her debut album came out two years ago to a mixed reception, that release, was perhaps achieved thanks to the privileges of her station. Having got it out of her system Willow seems to have figured out what it takes to make a good record, which is quite an achievement at any age.

The 1st is not an overly complex record, its 11 songs barely feature a rhythm section let alone a full band on any track, instead each tune is composed around a few instruments and the voice, but the latter is often doubled up or used to provide backing. On A Reason she sings up front while her voice echoes out a backing way behind the speakers, it’s an imaginative production that sees often acoustic instrumentation used to create tunes with plenty of variety and controlled passion. The songs are often about the subjects that occupy every teenager’s thoughts, love and its many complications being the most obvious, but purpose also rises up, “There has to be a reason I’m alive” being the most obvious instance and that related in an emotive style that’s not so distant from Alanis Morissette’s.

Willow has plenty of emotional and vocal range, in fact she has a great voice, one that covers the gamut from soft and sweet to heartfelt and desperate, but she reins it in most of the time. Letting some uncannily honest and frank observations fill tunes that avoid repetition, in fact it’s their musical dynamics that keeps you listening. The opener Boy manages to describe the anguish of love from the perspective of a girl who has had to balance fame and relationships from an early age, she starred alongside her dad at age seven. It’s arranged around plucked and bowed strings to good effect, the follow up An Awkward Life of an Awkwark Girl is a piano instrumental that’s classical in nature and rather charming for it. And Contentment starts out with the wisdom of ‘Happiness and contentment/Come from zero comparison while The Ho’ihi Interlude (Hawaiian for respect or honor) follows a brash opening with acoustic guitar and flute and the marvellous line “I wanna go where are the ETs phoning home”.

The production doesn’t offer much in the way of dynamic range but the elegant simplicity of the arrangements mean that The 1st rarely sounds loud in the bad sense. The acoustic instruments help to produce good tonal variety and depth and while this won’t set the audio world on fire it’s a well thought out and executed glimpse into the psyche of youth today, albeit a youth that’s hardly typical of the world at large.

Jason Kennedy

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