Thanks to her sweetly seething, Paramore-quoting chart-topper Good 4 U, Olivia Rodrigo hogged the majority of the limelight when it came to this year’s zoomer-led pop-punk revival. It certainly felt like Willow Smith deserved more of a look-in. The 21-year-old’s fourth album swapped the dreamy psychedelic soul of her recent output for a pummelling, hook-riddled, near-perfect collision of pop-punk, emo, alternative rock and metal nu and old.
Lately I Feel Everything (LIFE) comes just over a decade since Smith made headlines with her debut single, Whip My Hair, an impressively cool (especially for a 10-year-old) R&B-pop number. For all its quality, its existence was also predicated on her celebrity offspring status – Willow is the daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith – but it would be extremely difficult to make that argument about her latest record. From the grainy closer Breakout – a collaboration with indie band Cherry Glazerr that combines nu-metal vocals with a stadium-rock-into-cantering-punk backdrop via a Kanye interpolation – to the bratty lo-fi interlude F**k You, which has Smith wailing atonally Slits-style over a reggae-adjacent rhythm, this is far from bet-hedging, focus-grouped fare.
The lyrics can be a little trite – the euphoric Grow is therapy-speak bingo, Transparent Soul is about fame-hungry hangers-on – but the music is resolutely of the now. That’s partly down to its knowing, very Gen-Z worship of turn-of-the-millennium sounds and figures (Travis Barker, who has become something of a mentor to a new wave of pop-punkers of late, features on three tracks; Avril Lavigne sings on Grow) and partly Willow’s vocal melodies – especially on Gaslight and Xtra – whose subtlety and wending, elliptical nature fuses punk heritage with contemporary R&B. It’s the latter that makes it impossible to dismiss LIFE as zeitgeist-surfing pop: this is the sound of an innovating, idiosyncratic artist, whose talent is now far more interesting than her showbiz backstory.