- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2005

Will Smith

Lost and Found

Interscope Records

Will Smith has a few things to get off his chest. Taking a break from his day job as one of the world’s biggest — and to all appearances, nicest — movie stars, the former Fresh Prince has emerged rhyming with a newfound purpose on his fourth solo set, “Lost and Found,” a refreshing departure from his PG-13 persona.

Judging from the LP’s title and cover art, the box office titan wants listeners to know that he’s still the same guy from West Philadelphia. The back-to-the-‘hood approach serves him well, as he avoids repeating corny past mistakes like the hokey singles “Wild Wild West” and “Will2K” from 1999’s “Willenium.”

“Lost” finds an edgier, agitated Mr. Smith fed up with the rumormongering and potshots from fellow artists and radio personalities (Eminem, Larry Elder, Wendy Williams, et al.) who have taken his amiable nature as a sign of weakness. Jabbing back on the guitar-heavy “Mr. Niceguy,” an unusually aggressive Mr. Smith warns detractors that his reply is “a warning shot over the bow/truth be told this ain’t my style/you gotta understand some stuff a man can’t allow/better chill before you climb a tree you can’t get down.”

Also raising his ire is urban radio, which he chides on the tongue-in-cheek “I Wish I Made That” while lamenting his lack of respect from rap’s gatekeepers: “Black radio, they won’t play me though/ever since “Summertime” they ain’t liked none of mine/even though the fans went out and bought enough/I guess they think that Will ain’t hard enough.”

To be fair to his critics, though, Mr. Smith has had higher professional priorities over the past decade than rapping. While many consider him a pioneer who helped pave the way for musicians to have viable acting careers, some music purists dismiss him as a charismatic but workmanlike lyricist who was lucky to be paired with one of the most innovative and skilled DJs in hip-hop, Jazzy Jeff.

Despite his previous lighthearted novelty tunes and his Hollywood success, his love for the art and culture was never in question — hip-hop permeates just about everything he does. Why would a $20 million-a-movie actor make a rap album unless he loved the medium?

On its merits, the well-paced “Lost” comes as a pleasant surprise. Its state-of-the-art production matches Mr. Smith’s fervor. His flow, while forced in spots, is fresh and up-to-date, unlike that of many hip-hop artists from the mid-1980s rendered obsolete by faster cadences and more complex rhyme schemes. He even manages to rhyme alongside Snoop Dogg on “Pump Ya Brakes” and not sound too out-of-place.

Although the LP isn’t entirely devoid of the fun-loving Mr. Smith that listeners have come to know and love/hate, he’s much more serious and introspective than in the past, when he extolled the virtues of traipsing through Miami. He may lose a few fans who expected more of the same, and hip-hop elitists probably won’t be open-minded enough to give him a fair chance.

However, Will Smith has made an LP of actual substance, a rarity in today’s market and especially unexpected from him. If it turns out to be his swan song, he’s done himself proud.

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