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In the heat of a lively performance at Camp Flog Gnaw last week, Jaden Smith grabbed the microphone to declare that Tyler the Creator was his "fucking boyfriend." The announcement itself wasn't reason for surprise. It was the ease of it, the nonchalant utterance of Smith who's spent years marinating in varying degrees of hard-pressed mystique. Since then, although Smith recently doubled-down on the claim, it seems to have been nothing more than a well-timed joke between good friends. But, on a larger note, the takeaway from the situation is that Smith's finally dropped the curtain. He's no longer the rapper version of a walking beanie and neckbeard in 90-degree Los Angeles weather. He's matured to realize that being relaxed can be just as captivating. His new project The Sunset Tapes: A Cool Tape Story is a measure of this maturation. It's much more cruise control capable, reveling in a mellow atmosphere for love songs, a la Drake in space. Instead of a scorching improvement that the album initially indicates that it will be, a hard-on for grating autotune and a surprising lack of bars indicate that The Sunset Tapes: A Cool Tape Story is a welcoming step up. But, ultimately a lukewarm, missed opportunity.
Don't worry, we went in depth about what makes it pretty lackluster. Here are our five takeaways from our listening experience.
No one in history has ever said, "Yo, if we add more autotune to this, it will be tight"
"Batman" is Smith's best rap song by far. It's because Smith makes effective use of his silky persona that's stratified through suave rapping. Even if he's not necessarily saying crock shit, it sounds deeper than what it is. When Smith spits like he means it, the monotony in his resting vocal tone is effectively camouflaged in the supporting beat, creating a captivating contrast that leads to fans becoming immersed upon repeated listens.
It's too bad that on The Sunset Tapes: A Cool Tape Story, autotune throws itself upon the listener, robbing what's supposed to be a rap album of the very element that makes it that. Smith's metallic quips aren't even smooth along with the technology to create a near seamless experience. It sounds like he's crumpling store brand aluminum foil, fiercely. It feels like an attempt to cash in on the melodic warbling of his new age rap peers like Gunna and Travis Scott. Instead, it sounds like there's a harmonica lodged in Smith's gut and someone's continuously kicking him. "Play This On A Mountain At Sunset" is the most offensive with this style, attempting to be a mystical, dreamy ode to the end of the day that's anything but. Seriously, "Plastic" is similarly empty with the robotic squealing meant to add a new dimension to it. It doesn't. It's a mind-boggling design choice that ultimately doesn't pan out.
His singing is better than you can imagine
While the caterwauling definitely is there, the slower instances of honest singing hit home – even if they are assisted with just the slightest bit of autotune. "Distant" is a vulnerable song that sounds like the first slivers of morning, featuring a gently sang melody next to rapped verses that help to showcase the smooth juxtaposition in both styles. "Yeah Yeah" is starkly different, going for a worldly, reggae-adjacent sound that, surprisingly, Smith manages to do justice. It's reminiscent of Drake's own lightly sang melodies that he pushes when he's going for the Billboard charts. When these dots connect, as they do multiple times here, the results are beautiful. The autotune may be questionable at times, but Smith truly does have a gift for singing outside of rap.
An assortment of big name producers gift Smith with his most beautiful palette of beats yet
There are a number of big name producers here. Maestro, Boi 1da, and 808 Mafia all bring the best of the aesthetics they've cultivated throughout the course of their careers to deliver what sounds like beats specifically created for Smith. Most of the album is quieter, more intimate affair. But, in loud spots, chiefly "Ten" and "SOHO," the energy gets cranked up to ten – even if the ensuing energy from Smith doesn't quite reflect it. Even the quieter sounds are more varied than you'd initially expect. "A Calabasas Freestyle" contains traces of boom bap, which was before Smith's time, yet he shreds these bars to pieces. It's one of the album's strongest cuts and it comes so early in the tracklist.
One of the biggest criticisms levied on SYRE was that its trite lyricism robbed its weirdness of any lasting weight. He took on theories and more obscure spiritual topics with the skill of someone dancing with leaden feet. On "Hope," Smith rapped, "Look, Fahrenheit 451/Building seven wasn't hit and there's more shit to come/The Pentagon is on a run." His attempts at starting a conversation that's already been covered extensively expose his cluelessness, almost like he was just being weird for weird's sake.
The Sunset Tapes: A Cool Story largely eliminates the existing cringe feel that made SYRE a headache to get through. Overall, the album is much more polished and intimate. When he makes songs about special women, Smith rhymes are directed to them with loving attention to detail. "Rollin Around" is refreshingly sexy with focused rhymes that have purpose. "FALLEN Part 2" is similarly aimed at an unnamed damsel, living in the past to cope with an empty reality. Without the banal conspiracy threads persisting throughout, it's much more authentic. There are some philosophical threads that do exist. But, they never venture into the ultra-cringe territory of Smith's earlier efforts. It's a surefire indicator of growth in the same way that Tyler the Creator shed the horrorcore raps for experimental indie music.
There are still traces of weird, though
That being said, Smith still hasn't fully stepped away from his weirder tendencies. His rhymes sometimes pave the way for a heavy punchline, only to end with no payout. On "SOHO," he raps, "We got orange jam in a new whip, finna orange it." After scratching your head and making sure you heard it right, you'll realize that yes, he didn't really say anything. When Smith's not rapping about Odessa Adlon, his punchline setups tend to similarly leave you alarmed. He raps, "Ten black sheep deep, they just want us to blend in (Oh)/That's what the neural net will say when the AI is sentient" on "A Calabasas Freestyle." With this song, you'll get the sneaking feeling that he's returning to the Smith from SYRE. But, wisely, this version of him doesn't pop up again.
The Sunset Tapes: A Cool Tape Story makes its case with improved lyricism and a near uniform style of production. It's just a shame that there's nowhere near as much rap as there should be on it. Smith's evolving away from his cringe-like mannerisms that existed in his previous music and heading in a more personal direction that seems to be an acquired taste. The rapping has improved, as has the singing. But, the autotune needs to be nixed, or at least, toned down some. The Sunset Tapes: A Cool Tape Story comes with a near equal balance of strengths and weaknesses. It's far from perfect, but any Jaden Smith project without Jesse Ventura level conspiracies is a plus.
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