“I weep ’cause I am turning and turning/ inside my skin/ I’m learning, learning how to give in,” Willow Smith sings on “And Contentment.”
Seventeen is a complicated age for anyone. It’s a time when people seek to know more while simultaneously thinking they’ve learned it all. Smith explored that theme when she dropped her sophomore album The 1st, a quizzical approach to love and liberation.
It’s evident through the album that Smith is trying to unpack a mountain of themes and questions throughout more than a half-hour runtime.
She is looking into the peephole when it comes to love; she is curious. “Hey mom, I met a boy/ He’s super sad/ But I think that I love him/ Is that bad?” she sings on “Boy.” But with love comes caveats: anxiety, doubt, naivety. So she holds it at arm’s length, anticipating its failure. “Oh No!!!” is alarmingly self-destructive: “I’m going to break my heart/ Because I know you won’t do it first,” she croons atop high energy thumping bass.
The rebelliousness we often associate with teenagers is apparent — she often sings of different means to escape. Yet there are moments when Willow’s age betrays her. The call-and-answer format of “Ho’ ihi Interlude” (“ho’ ihi” is the Hawaiian word for respect) shows her aiming for the things higher than herself. “I wanna see/ I wanna see the energy within the trees/ I wanna be/ I wanna be in unity infinitely.” On “Romance,” she asks that we look at love more holistically, and calls the concept a “hoax to trick your mind.”
Her voice is arresting, and she showcases a keen ability to flawlessly maneuver her pitch and volume, alternating between gentle comfort and sheer force.
Unfortunately, other aspects of the album, particularly the writing, do not stand out as much. There are exceptions — the feature by twin sisters Chloe x Halle on “Lonely Road,” her command on “Romance” to “stop leading girls to the clouds above/ it’s so distracting/ we can focus on self-love.” Yet a lot of it is muddy (like “You’re a human leech/ But you’re so good to me”).
While the album is classified as alternative, it is quite folksy, with spurts of traditional rock (“Human Leech”) and soul (“Warm Honey”), with a Spanish guitar and saxophone making cameos.
Otherwise, the instrumentation is kept very minimalistic. The eerie piano keys of “An Awkward Life of an Awkward Girl” have a nearly two-minute solo. “Boy” employs sprite violins and mellow guitars, and it works because it’s the opener, but the rampant simplicity throughout risks verging listeners on boredom.
While the project isn’t necessarily compelling, it’s clear the young singer has lots of time and room for growth.