But numbers don't tell the Will Smith story. He's such a ubiquitous entertainer that many of his songs are elevated by marketing and movie tie-ins, then quickly forgotten. On the flip side, some of them are really good, and he did some tunes with the highly credible DJ Jazzy Jeff that earned airplay on old-school hip-hop radio along with Run-DMC and the Wu-Tang Clan - "Brand New Funk" and "Summertime" for example.
Smith has been pulling double duty for more than two decades. His big films include Independence Day (1996), Wild Wild West (1999), and of course, Men In Black (1997), Men In Black 2 (2002), and Men In Black 3 (2012).
Rather than poke fun at Smith and his cartoon-like mannerisms - we'll leave that to Saturday Night Live actor Jay Pharoah and his spot-on impression - we decided to break down the actor/rapper's best and worst songs of his solo career.
Best: (tie) "Men In Black" and "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It"
Who could forget Smith's iconic movie song "Men In Black" and its accompanying video? The song takes a creative spin on Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots" but it's Smith's clever lyrics and impeccable sense of rhyme that catch our attention:
Walk in shadow, move in silence
Guard against extra-terrestrial violence
But yo, we ain't on no government list
We straight don't exist, no names and no fingerprints
"Men In Black" was the biggest radio hit of 1997, #1 on the Billboard airplay chart for four weeks that summer. It was never officially released as a single in the United States, which bumped sales of the soundtrack and of Smith's debut album – Big Willie Style. The payoff for Smith was huge as the record went straight to #1 in several countries including Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Anyone who remembers 1998 knows that "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" was the unquestionable party jam of the summer. Special props to Smith for the creative sampling of Sister Sledge's song "He's the Greatest Dancer" AND for his clever reference to The Jeffersons. The line "since I moved up like George and Weezie" pays homage to both the show's characters and its theme song "Movin' On Up."
On top of all of that, "Getting' Jiggy Wit It" earned Smith a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance for the second year in a row. What was the first, you ask? "Men In Black," of course!
This track samples the 1980 song "And the Beat Goes On" by The Whispers to great effect but doesn't offer up much more in a musical sense. Instead, we hear Smith going on about the luxuries he enjoys while vacationing in South Beach. A rapper bragging about being wealthy and club-hopping? Yawn.
Best: "So Fresh"
Although Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff officially broke up as a rap duo in the mid-'90s, DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeffrey Allen Townes) is featured on this track and gives it the "fresh" vibe implied by the name.
Townes' story is worth noting. Since parting from Smith, he has focused on writing and producing music on his own, working with artists like Jill Scott and Musiq in the process. In 2009, he created a mixtape to honor his fallen hero Michael Jackson entitled He's the King... I'm the DJ. And if you want to show your buddies your best DJ Jazzy Jeff impression, pick up the video game DJ Hero; he's featured as a playable character.
Worst: "Will 2 K"
This song was marketing at its best. Released just two months before the turn of the century in 1999, it ripped off The Clash's classic hit "Rock the Casbah." The problem is that Smith's appropriation didn't change the original enough. While artists like M.I.A. have successfully sampled The Clash since, "Will 2 K" basically just comes off as a lazy cover version.
Here's a testament to how people feel about this song: Since the video for it was added to Smith's VEVO account in 2011, it has received the least number of views out of any of his videos. Sure, the song reached #2 on the UK singles chart, but American fans didn't seem to respond the same way. Maybe it's because it featured K-Ci from the one-hit wonder duo K-Ci & JoJo, who stuck it rich with 1998's "All My Life." Too bad he couldn't repeat that success on this one.
Best: "Black Suits Comin' (Nod Ya Head)"
When rock bands try to incorporate rap elements into their sound, the results are often disastrous. When rap artists incorporate rock, however, the results are often surprising and fun. The Black Eyed Peas' "Anxiety," Michael Jackson's "Beat It," and Kid Cudi's "Erase Me" are all great examples of this, as is Will Smith's underrated, guitar-driven track "Black Suits Comin' (Nod Ya Head)".
Upon its release in 2002, "Black Suits Comin' (Nod Ya Head)" from Men In Black 2 was, of course, largely overshadowed by the success of Smith's massive hit "Men In Black" from the first movie of the same name. How could he possibly replicate the success of his first hit single? He couldn't. They say hindsight is 20/20, and with lines like "The black suit, the black shades, the black shoes/The black tie with the black attitude," "Black Suits Comin' (Nod Ya Head)" makes Will Smith look like Paul McCartney compared to some of work he went on to do.
Worst: "I Gotta Go Home"
Only a movie star would whine about working in Jamaica for ten days. So why does Will Smith desperately want to go home on this track? To be with a woman. Sure, it's a noble cause, but not when you also rap about smoking weed and flirting with a hostess in the same verse. Actually, the verses in this one are so lyrically dense and busy-sounding that you'll start to think that Smith would make a great auctioneer on Storage Wars.
Let's give credit where credit is due. The steel drums on the chorus are a nice touch and some of the lyrics have merit. Yes, it would indeed suck to leave Jamaica without seeing the island or trying the jerk chicken. But when this song was released, Smith had just earned himself a $20 million payday for Men In Black 2. It's probably safe to say that most people would put up with a little heat and humidity for $2 million a day.
Best: "Pump Ya Breaks" ft. Snoop Dogg
Snoop Dogg is the Dalai Llama of rap. It's pretty hard to picture an artist whose songs he couldn't save, with everyone from Willie Nelson to Rage Against the Machine benefiting from his laid-back, cannabis-laced raps. But the best thing about Snoop is that he's always able to inject life into tracks without the in-your-face, annoying attitude that so many of today's rap stars seem to resort to (including Smith himself, sometimes).
Admittedly, "Pump Ya Breaks" doesn't ignite until Snoop's verse at the 2:15 mark, but fortunately, Smith is able to ride the deep, "Drop It Like It's Hot" beat without any major blunders until that point. The tongue-twister that is the second verse keeps us awake and concludes with the interesting/bizarre line: "Jumpin' to conclusions get you nowhere honey, gotta pump ya brakes and be a crash test dummy."
Worst: (tie) "Switch" and "Party Starter"
Did you know that there are over 2.7 million people in the United States with the last name "Smith?" We're guessing there are just as many rap songs about partying. The disappointing part for Will Smith is that his party song is as generic as they come. Seriously. Stick "Party Starter" next to a box of no-name macaroni and you won't be able to tell the difference. His chorus for this one is: "Whoa! I'm the party starter, you might have a good time but we party harder." Really, Will? Most of the songs in Yo Gabba Gabba! have better choruses than that.
"Switch" is almost as lame. With a beat obviously lifted from K-OS' single "Crabbuckit" - which was released just one year prior – this one is a volcano of cringe-inducing images. What's worse: Smith asking a girl why she arrived at the club naked or comparing himself to sticking a syringe in your arm? Oh, and let's not forget the not-so-subtle line reminding us: "Don't download, go out and buy the record." Smith was definitely more lost than found on the majority of this album.
Best: "Parents Just Don't Understand"
This tune wasn't just a breakthrough for Smith's music career; it was a breakthrough for rap music in general. The song won a Grammy award for Best Rap Performance in 1989, only one of two songs to do so before the award was discontinued. It also climbed all the way up to #12 on Billboard's Hot 100 Chart, but the coolest part is that the single is only available on vinyl.
"Parents Just Don't Understand" is over twenty years old, but it continues to show up in popular culture today. It has appeared in several movies including Malibu's Most Wanted and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Lil' Romeo, 3LW, and Nick Cannon have all covered the track, and Saturday Night Live alumnus Amy Poehler even chimed in with her take on the second season premiere of Parks and Recreation.
But wait - there's more. This song was used by a young Tupac Shakur in a music video he made with Smith's future wife Jada Pinkett-Smith while the two were attending the Baltimore School of Performing Arts together. Ironic, isn't it?
Worst: "Wild Wild West"
This one is the epitome of all things bad about Will Smith's lyrics. Where is the "Wild Wild West" and why does Smith feel like he has to warn us not to get "bum rushed" if we go there? 'Nuff said.
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