Three Six Zero Records, gamma


Willow Smith Understands Us

May 15, 2024

It’s been nearly a decade since the release of Willow Smith’s debut solo album, Ardipithecus. In the time since we have been able to witness a unique musical maturing process that has led us to her dynamic and deeply personal new album Empathogen

This album stands as the sixth solo studio project from the 23 year old and displays an incredible level of self examination, to the point where I believe this album stands as an inflection point, not only in her discography but in Willow as an artist.

In an interview with Billboard news, Willow describes Empathogen as her first “grownup” album. If we view this project as a watershed moment for her then what she is saying resonates.  This album deals with the process of self discovery but takes the time to flip conventional notions of the “coming of age story” on its head. The message on this album becomes more world discovery and finding out that our positions in this world are not fixed. We are to realize that the ever changing nature of ourselves is the point. 

To truly dissect this album’s journey, it has to be divided into three distinct sections. Just as life itself defies structure, these core elements – home, others, and the self – offer the most comprehensive glimpse into the experience. Following Willow’s lead on this album, let’s begin with the concept of home.”

As the name of the first track home provides us with some context to the approach we expect towards the themes on this album. However, even this is inverted,  on the song with the accompaniment of Jon Batiste, Willow effortlessly lets out smooth runs with the lyrics, “I live my life in a river of grace, I trust this river to carry me home.” 

From these lyrics one might expect a more serene emotional experience then what comes to pass on the album. The Willow that we have here is one from the end of her quest, able to take the time and express to us the beautiful home she has constructed for herself after all of the worry and hiding she does on this project.  In tracks later on in the project like the methodical “Pain For Fun” featuring St.Vincent she takes the time to tell us how alone the concept of home makes her feel. Alluding to the fact that her carefree attitude with regards to getting home might not yet be constructed. Along with the lyrics “Light and dark is just a place called home” from the penultimate song on the album I Know That Face, this tells us that home for Willow was not the utopian destination that she describes through serenade in the beginning of the album. 

It’s not by accident that two of these songs are the only ones with features as well. In previous projects, it often seemed as though Willow’s world was limited only to her own perception, resulting in uninhibited self-expression. However, in this album, there’s a noticeable shift as Willow demonstrates a newfound awareness of the vastness of the world beyond herself.This leads to much of the angst that is present on the album but she also is able to channel that into an emotional bridge,  able to connect her struggles to those around her. With that we look at the next part of this tapestry she has woven, others. 

One of the biggest parts of growing is having an understanding of the people outside of ourselves, to see what hurts them or what makes them smile. This process while rewarding is arduous and enough to make some feel like hiding, and the track that best embodies this concept is the aptly titled “Run!”.

In this song, because she understands that we all must be hiding ourselves the way she is, Willow wonders what happens when she sees people for who they are. Is it enough to make her turn away unable to deal with the vexing reality of companionship? To only know as much of a person as they’d like you to, to love their mask. What happens when it slips? Is it too much to handle? At this point in her path the answer was clearly yes and it echoes early sentiment of hers from albums past. During her conversation with Apple Music about her self-titled album, Willow delves into the apprehension she once harbored about inviting others into her studio space or seeking their musical guidance. This sentiment echoes what she has previously expressed in the buildup to this album, albeit from a contrasting standpoint.. In a recent interview with Billboard, Willow discussed her journey of releasing the notion that external validation of her talent held significance. She has transitioned away from seeking approval and now embraces a deep appreciation of her inherent worth. This shift is poignantly reflected in the track “Symptom of Life.”With lyrics like “Gotta decide if I’m gonna see it, why? …Gotta decide how we’re gonna heal it, why? …while beauty is a symptom of life”. She urges us to take a much more active role in defining ourselves in relation to the people near us, while also understanding how fleeting what we are chasing actually is.  Willow seems to use the term beauty against itself. The lyrics suggest a comment on how much of what we define as beautiful deals with external thoughts and opinions rather than appreciation of what is front of us. 

What we are given is an unnerving reality check, we are asked to contemplate the bigger questions of life without the shame and guilt that can come from looking for outside approval. This concept is also explored in depth on “Between I and She.”

This song speaks to the juxtaposition of looking at oneself through someone else’s eyes and accepting the fact that she is not in control of how everyone will perceive her. It is the first time Willow allows herself to turn her mind off and be, and that she seems to be the closest to who she truly is. This way of seeing yourself without  contemplating each and every opinion of you may encounter , brings up the third and final element that we must discuss in this project, the self.

Much of this project purposely dedicates itself to the idea of an inner and outer self as two fixed positions. The song that allows us to see the flaw in hiding who we are is the sublime “Fear is not real.” 

On this song, Willow acknowledges the universality of anxiety, yet underscores the challenge of articulating these emotions amidst the journey of self-discovery.. In the lyrics, we see the refrain of “To be the prey To be the hunter To be the child To be the mother.” To be both mother and child to take care of yourself while simultaneously having to be prey and hunter to look for yourself is the eternal struggle that Willow ( seems to be trapped in. How do you care for an ever moving and ever evolving being? Just when it seems that there is steady ground for her to stand on, then comes the song “False Self.” Filled to the brim with palatable disdain for the constant changes she is experiencing, the song becomes disjointed and it leaves the impression that this process of discovering the true self will not be nearly as pleasant as once thought. 

It isn’t until we return to “I Know That Face” that there is a true sense of peace found. This is when it seems that she can collect her thoughts, saying “maybe I’m too urgent to know it all”. Here, Willow seems to have taken a step back from having to answer each mystery of the universe. Letting go and allowing herself to live in the tornado of emotion that we call day to day life until we hit the cathartic ending “Big Feelings.”

This song’s message is bigger than “accept yourself, ” to me it reads more as “accept your place in time.” Accept the fact that you are unknowable– you are a vortex, ever changing, but in every iteration there is beauty in you. In fact, the beauty is in the change itself.

This ending provides Willow a chance to proudly embrace this free fall of a life that we all lead. As she says “acceptance is the key, acceptance gives me wings” the freedom that Willow finds can best be described as comfort in chaos. Embracing the shifting nature of our existence and finding comfort in the fact that on this spinning nonsensical rock of ours we have the ability to genuinely feel joy and hurt. The self that she has been looking for the home that she has craved resides in all of us in each moment of our existence. She accepts that all of us are struggling in the same ways, and remedy for the stress of our existence is found in real connections with others.