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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Willow Smith’s ‘Ardipithecus’ Sacrifices Appeal for Uniqueness

(El Seven/Flickr)
(El Seven/Flickr)

Let’s get one thing straight: Willow Smith’s “Ardipithecus” is, by any measure, better than any pop record you will ever hear from a 15 year old. Smith, the sole writer and producer for almost the entire album, quietly dropped the evolution-themed album last month following years of shelved plans and, to its credit, the project sounds like it couldn’t have come from anyone else.

But “Ardipithecus” is not the long-overdue teen pop opus from the girl who gave us “Whip My Hair,” nor is it an expansion of the alternative R&B makeover from the 2014 EP, “iii.” Unfortunately, “Ardipithecus” feels like a disappointment compared to either prospect – an overstuffed, over planned album that plays like it was meant to satisfy no one other than Smith, herself.

It seems “Ardipithecus” suffers many of the same problems as the biggest 2015 pop disaster, “Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz:” lack of quality control, sub-par recording and, most gratingly, the adoption of an obnoxious college stoner persona. The only difference is that where the Miley of “Dead Petz” probably went to CU-Boulder, Smith sounds like the pretentious Hampshire College freshman who wears a third eye and won’t shut up about the Gaia hypothesis. The lyrics are a hodgepodge of concepts from new-age philosophy, astronomy and whatever else is likely to make you think Smith is “deep.” They feel overly self-important, yet regrettably formulaic – an oppressive device hell-bent on not letting you forget that Smith really is as hyper-mature and sophisticated as she seems.

Look no further than the opening line for an example: “Classification and organization is ruining the minds of our generation.” She punctuates the remark with an “I said it,” in case you didn’t register just how much of a truth bomb she dropped. The next several lines include exclamations in Na’vi, a plug for her brother’s clothing line – an entity named “True” – and possibly an “Adventure Time” reference. The writing only gets more convoluted for the next 14 songs – get ready to do some Googling unless you’re already familiar with terms like “labradorite,” “Nibiru,” “indigo children” and “Annunaki.”

Though this esoteric turn is not entirely unexpected given Smith’s history of pushing social boundaries, as well as her surrounding influences – “I could pretend money grows on trees, but it does and that’s the funny thing” is surely a scrapped Jaden Smith tweet – her “enlightened” assertions become immediately exhausting.

Smith’s decision to helm the album’s composition is admirable, but the results are less than impressive. A seasoned Ableton user could easily call up any patch or loop used here, including the jarring harp and xylophone combination of “F Q-C #8,” or the misplaced EDM breakdown at the end of “RANDOMSONG.” The rawness of Smith’s vocals end up being a double-edged sword as well. Although there’s still a hint of Rihanna (an admittedly lazy comparison that’s followed her since “Whip My Hair”), her new go-to inflection, an even heavier “island” tinge, simply makes her sound like Sia with less pitch control. While it’s nice to hear Smith sing in an unpolished form that her tween days would never have permitted, she doesn’t yet have the compositional skills to back it up. She is constantly writing herself out of her range or shifting to talking mid-phrase as though the melody isn’t interesting enough to follow through with.

“Ardipithecus” is still nowhere near the barren wasteland of “Dead Petz” (although that’s setting the bar pretty low). “Natives of the Windy Forest,” a distant cousin to Angel Haze’s conceptually-similar “Back to the Woods,” is a bouncy number with choruses of shouted vocals swarming and eventually overtaking the beat. “IDK” features the record’s most refreshingly straightforward instrumentation, along with an exceptional hook where her Sia impression pushes into bolder Alanis Morissette territory.

Late album dance cuts “Star” and “Wait a Minute!” offer glimpses of what a more traditional evolution might have sounded like. “I don’t even care, run my hands through your hair, you wanna run your fingers through mine, but my dreads too thick and that’s alright” she sings on the latter track. Continued Na’vi interjections and references to alternate dimensions aside, it’s here that Smith finally mixes in just enough of her own quirk to be unobtrusive while still molding the song into her own.

The surprise release of “Ardipithecus” suggests that it’s to be viewed in the same vein of other unconventional records to surface on the iTunes store, but where albums like “Beyoncé” and “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” seemed genetically designed to maintain appeal while avoiding descriptors like “radio-friendly,” “Ardipithecus” has a singular goal to prove how different it is. And while Willow Smith is undoubtedly happy with the final product, whether people get it or not, the rest of us are left to wonder how much is even worth getting.

Will Doolittle can be reached at [email protected].

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  • P

    pleasureprincipleMay 20, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    1. “You honestly just don’t like this girl being successful” is the most tired and baseless reaction to a negative critique. Also I’d hardly call this record “successful.”
    2. “Did you even listen it?” Did YOU even read this review? He goes in detail about many songs and lyrics.
    3. “Deeper meanings anyone but you will understand” – The overall critical reception of this record (51/100 on Metacritic) doesn’t quite support this…
    4. Pretentious lyricism that makes these “deeper meanings” you reference more difficult to access is a valid critique. A book could raise great points, but if it’s writing is off-putting you wouldn’t want to read it.
    5. He highlighted four songs that he thinks are standouts. That’s nearly a third of the record. This is hardly a “panning” review – you could even call it “mixed.”

  • G

    gokuMay 5, 2016 at 12:27 am

    you honestly just dont like this girl being successful. did you even listen to it? its full of thousands of deeper meanings that anyone but you will understand because you only see this talented girl through biased eyes. shes acts true to herself, and thats what matters. not that you cant “get” her ways of expressing herself, through her music or mentality, or the way she acts, which you find so “exhausting.” just, think more about what youre saying instead of attacking what you dont understand.