In the nearly 30 years since the initial release of He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper, a lot has changed for “The Fresh Prince” Will Smith.
In the nearly 30 years since the initial release of He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper, a lot has changed for “The Fresh Prince” Will Smith. He became a megawatt movie star with a penchant for rapping about films he’s starred in (a pastime humorously presaged in album opener “A Nightmare on My Street”) and he found curious solace in Scientology. He’s also the father of two radically individualist progeny who both highlight how hip hop itself has changed more than Smith has in the ensuing decades. When you think of Willow Smith’s startling neo soul stylings or Jaden dressing up like Batman for a sci-fi trap record about crime fighting, it’s insane to think how their pop made hits like “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” But revisiting rap’s first major double album in a world populated by Lil Pump and Lil Yachty and a whole host of other Technicolor “lil” monikers “ruining” hip hop is a fascinating experience.
Old heads the world over may filibuster about how ridiculous this new breed of MC is while more open-minded fans choose to focus on the deftness of newer, more experimental hip hop production, but that’s basically the entire Fresh Prince & Jazzy Jeff formula. Compared to mic dominators like Rakim and Chuck D and other luminaries Smith once toured with, his gifts as a rapper were largely intertwined with his charisma and weapons grade likability. He was a goofy, colorful oddball getting by on charm and the intense ability to put any segment of his listening audience at ease. Diehards were able to swallow Smith’s centrist softness because he rapped over beats from Jeff, easily the most underrated producer in hip hop history, given how popular a figure he’s been in relation to his legit skills as a sample manipulator.
As much as the landscape has changed, some of the lighter tracks on the double LP are strange listens in 2017. We’ve been conditioned through years of marketing commoditization to identify “old school” hip hop friendliness with a toothless attempt to advertise bullshit. At any given moment through much of the record’s runtime, you feel the audio might fade out into a testimonial for a new car, or insurance or anything else companies need to jam down your throat with the reliable cultural cache of rappity rap as a salve. But for every track like “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” which has aged like weird cheese if not bad milk, there’s a powerful example of why Smith and Jeff’s chemistry propelled them into stardom. “Charlie Mack (The First Out the Limo)” showcases Smith’s storytelling ability to remind audiences that he was pretty good with the pen even before he had Nas and Common ghostwriting for him. But the track that probably holds up the best is “Pump Up the Bass.”
It features Smith pushing himself in terms of flow, vocabulary and sheer intensity compared to his otherwise cartoonish presence, availing himself nicely over the thudding, probing instrumental Jeff has created for him to play over. Other than the timeless “Summertime” from 1991’s Homebase, “Pump Up the Bass” is arguably the song to play for anyone who doesn’t remember just what force Fresh Prince & Jazzy Jeff were in their heyday.
Before Smith went on to save the world from aliens and giant mechanical spiders every July 4th, he was a laughable hooligan making rap safe for the suburbs without making it fake or watered down. It’s easy to forget that after years of watching him cackle on red carpets or reading any number of his son’s humorous spacecase tweets. But all it takes is a spin of this commercial and critical classic to remember why it all worked. He was destined to be a star, duh, but he’d never have got there if he wasn’t partnered with such a quietly versatile DJ, one who had no qualms with their mutually beneficial division of labor.