Jaden Smith's "SYRE" brings music for the casually woke.
Jaden Smith’s debut album, SYRE, almost sounds good.
It’s the vast, interstellar (no, let’s say interdimensional) journey of a reformed Byronic hero, a man both ancient and young, eternal and dying, blissful and tortured. That sound’s like a lot, right? A project like Smith’s, one that expects such serious contemplation, is unwittingly inviting a bit of ironic, supercilious description. So, sorry about that.
In a more plainspoken way, SYRE is Jaden Smith being exactly himself. It’s him directing a lush, solipsistic epic populated by a million voices concerned with life’s big questions, but without the diligence or patience to fully engage those questions. It is confused and restless, and in every moment you’re at risk of being plucked up and transported to some new dimension of Smith’s scattered narrative. It’s an exhausting journey.
There’s an illusion of thematic unity, as much as an illusion of truth-finding, but a little prodding reveals Jaden Smith to be as clueless on that as we are. “Ninety,” a song that clocks in at seven-minutes and forty-eight seconds (that’s not even the longest) is one of the biggest offenders. It doesn’t seem like a song he could mess up, because unlike most of the album’s tracks, it’s framed around a single idea— a breakup. Still, Smith manages to drags us through empty, confusing lines like “They attacking’ us, I’ma just weep on my willow” to equally as ridiculous ones as “Sometimes I feel like a stone, sometimes I’m feeling like I’m/ (I’m rolling).” But don’t worry too much about that because “it’s raining cats and dogs, stay away from all them puddles,” and just know that somewhere along the way you should have seen through to the essence of that painful breakup.
At times like this, the album is more a testament to its producers’ stamina and versatility, especially that of Lido, a Norwegian musician who has worked with Chance the Rapper, Halsey, and Towkio. Lido helms production on SYRE’s biggest, most ambitious tracks, adroitly keeping pace with Smith’s restive lyrics and relentless verbosity — and he uses just about everything to do it. Rock, trap, li-fi buzz— these songs can’t sit still. “Hope,” Smith’s six-minute call-to-arms and screed on social injustice starts off with faraway chants and airy piano notes, before being rocked by drums some trap instrumentals, and then cutting to a dreamy xylophone outro. There’s an obsession with fluidity, maybe because Smith is convinced that yielding to everything is better than standing by something that might be wrong; and songs like “Hope” or the explosive single, “Falcon” (produced by Tim Stuby), gloss over everything at once, without committing to anything.
It’s more than just in the production— that element is, after all, a reflection of Jaden Smith’s guiding vision. And when I consider that vision and its product, the word meandering comes to mind. It’s meandering because there’s so much content, meaningless metaphors and analogies, that you can hit ‘Play’ and catch yourself reading a book or scrolling through your news feed only to realize you set out to listen to an album today, and meandering because of Smith’s own restlessness. Perhaps the most irresponsible manifestations of this restlessness are those moments when he decides to comment on social issues. Such as when he compares himself to Kendrick Lamar after tossing out a few bars on consumerism and poverty. It fits with his mission, as part of the MSFTS collective, to “[wake] up the population of the planet Earth, through attaining knowledge and personal growth”— that is, enlightening by doing pretty much nothing— and it’s what we’ve come to expect from Smith, but it still stings when he name-drops Martin Luther King or says something as inscrutable as “I’m an African American/ A variant to what my city’s like,” then disappears into his New Age cloud like he’s done us all a big service.
Jaden Smith’s music is perfect for the generation of the casually woke, for the kids who want to make a better world but are too dizzied by their millions of distractions (and their unfocused creative ambitions), so they opt for retweets, Tumblr posts, and impassioned GoFundMe donations. And that’s not all bad. He accomplishes some firsts along the way— namely, shouting out his Tesla more than any rapper ever (and who isn’t for stopping climate change?) and creating the first rap album I’ve ever heard that doesn’t use the word ‘bitch.’ In the scope of his global mission, those are respectable honors, though not something Smith would settle for; remember, he wants everything at once. This album's missteps are shaded by that vast ambition, because unlike his inspirations Kanye West and Frank Ocean, he couldn’t articulate the experience of scattered want the way they did on their most recent albums. Instead he showed himself to be the supreme millennial aesthete, someone so caught up in their own ambitions, image, and earnest desire to make a meaningful impact on the world that their art becomes a cherry picking of cool-sounding ideas that make them feel like they’ve built something. Some are fundamentally good ideas about justice and diversity and multiculturalism (what he discusses in his lyrics), but also fake-deep ideas, like the nonsensical metaphor he strings through about “the boy who chased the sunset until it chased him.” Or the sprawling opening tracks “B”, “L”, “U”, “E”, that establish a creation-myth parable and jettison us into Smith’s epic tale.
Those who found a way to inhabit his fantasy and didn’t take the myth for superficiality will probably disagree, but Smith does best when he’s not trying to drop knowledge. When he shares the experience of a young, rich kid— the bounce and dance of “Icon” and “Watch Me.” Those are his truths, and there’s no shame in it. He’ll learn more pondering and sharing that part of himself than through creation myths and elaborate metaphors about color and sunsets.