If the last time you heard from Willow Smith was in 2010, when she was just ten years old and performing her breakout hit “Whip My Hair”, you might be surprised when you hear her new album, Lately I Feel Everything. Now 20, Willow has found her voice in collaboration with pop-punk veterans Travis Barker (of Blink-182) and Avril Lavigne, and has produced a brisk record of powerful, catchy emo-fusion.
Willow’s eponymous third album of 2019 was a wash of soulful psychedelia, fluctuating between spacey and dense: but there were signs that she was capable of something heavier and more granular in bursts of electric guitar. Lately I Feel Everything launches straight into a driving guitar riff on “Transparent Soul”, with Willow’s vocal mimicking its rhythm. On “Gaslight”, she takes off at an even quicker pace, all relentless drums and theatrical melodies, and translates emo sensibilities and moods for 2021.
The album is full of energetic Gen-Z angst: “F**k You” is just an interlude, but is instrumental in shaping the mood of the record, as Willow shouts a capella over crashing drum kit. “Lipstick” is similarly sparse and heavy, as Willow’s soprano belt is interspersed with a throbbing bass riff that descends into a wailing, gothic chorus.
But while Lately I Feel Everything is clearly part of the wider emo and pop-punk revival, this is not simply pastiche or nostalgia: Willow merges these references with the more soulful elements of her previous work, and with slow-jam, the Weeknd-style R&B. “Naive” opens slowly with a shoe-gaze-y guitar and a static melody that has none of Blink-182’s theatre. Yet lyrically it remains introspective and moody: “Life’s a movie, and it sucks, but I can’t stop watching.” The chorus opens out into an ethereal scream. Later, we realise it’s political: “We got shot by rubber bullets at a protest in the Bronx.” The genre-bending and confidence of the slow tempo are a powerful statement of Willow’s identity.
On the penultimate track, “Grow”, Willow collaborates with Lavigne in a self-acceptance jam: “I’ve been putting work in, healing myself/Still got room to grow/I’ve been really searching, еmotional wealth/Honestly my heart is brokе/I just need to grow, grow, grow.” Musically, it’s Avril through and through: an irresistible chorus line, heavy guitar and drums, up-tempo with an optimistic melody. And although adolescent rage will never be fully gone, lyrically, of course, it’s far removed from the outright misery of the early 2000s. As well as stepping towards a defined musical identity, with Lately I Feel Everything Willow shows us that emo is not dead, it just sounds a little different this time.