From Bad Brains to Death, the African American contribution to punk and hardcore music is manifold.
Few would guess, however, that in 2021, the standard bearer for those two genres — and perhaps for rock music itself — could be the Gen Z daughter of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and the actress Jada Pinkett Smith.
Not to mention, the very same singer who scored a novelty hit about a decade ago with the hip hop-influenced club trifle “Whip My Hair.”
That’s how parts of the mainstream music media, at least, present Willow Smith, performing as Willow, and her latest turn toward electric guitars and pop punk on lately I feel EVERYTHING.
Willow’s 2021 release features Travis Barker from Blink 182 on drums, who also produced a few songs, and Avril Lavigne, among other guest appearances. Willow stops by Eugene Sept. 23, warming up with some headlining slots before supporting Billie Eilish on a world tour next year.
If there’s one thing consistent about this wave of Gen Z artists is that they’re stylistically voracious and seemingly indifferent to genre labels.
That is to say, there’s as much pop and soul on Willow’s latest release as there is punk, and the frenetic contributions of Barker and the indie singer Cherry Glazerr on the album’s closing track provide an edge of hyperpop intensity, an emerging sound with Ritalin energy and a digital nihilism, where everything is possible and nothing matters.
Along with her romantic partner Tyler Cole, Willow released THE ANXIETY in 2020, a much finer example of classic D.C. hardcore like Minor Threat, with plenty of detours into pop, soul, R&B and hip hop.
Throughout both ANXIETY and Everything, though, guitars remain loud, drums are driving, bass guitars grind, and the production is loose and exhilaratingly reckless. Willow, herself a talented and versatile singer remains refreshingly vulnerable, both in her willingness to reach points of rock ‘n’ roll excess, but also, on topics of mental health, sexuality and identity.
From Everything, “Transparentsoul feat. Travis Barker” is a teen angst anthem with emo guitars and a timelessly soaring chorus that, if at any point a pop song changed your heart or saved your life, is impossible to deny.
While on “Gaslight,” also featuring Barker, Willow who is openly bisexual sings with gender-fluidity, “I had to tell her, just stop messing with my head, and love me instead, it’s not official, but I think it’s common sense, or am I insane? I blew out the gaslight, now I feel a different way, I’ll just love me instead.”
Those lines come over a revved-up backbeat and a melody that, in a different era, could belong to The Supremes.
Throughout the album there are also intriguingly raw interludes and fragments of songs — borrowing something from the hip-hop mixtape format. Such as “don’t SAVE ME,” swimming in an Eilish-like low-end wubba-wubba before breaking through to the rafters with crashing waves of guitars.
And what exactly is “F**k You,” a 30-second bratty shout-along? In it, Willow puts it plainly: “Fuck you for fucking up my heart” But is it punk? In the eyes of Willow’s generation, that debate really doesn’t matter, and nor should it to you.
What’s for certain, Willow’s willing to overcome and transcend her show biz lineage, taking risks to establish her own voice in a generation willing to go dark, loud and angry in their music.
Which makes sense, after a lifetime spent swimming through financial crashes and a global pandemic, and that, more than anything, is punk enough for me.
Willow performs 8 pm Thursday, Sept 23, at McDonald Theatre; $25 advance, $30 day of show, all-ages, proof of vaccination or negative test required.