At just 20 years old, Jaden Smith has already built an impressive career out of the unexpected. An initial foray into the realm of Hollywood was soon overshadowed by the star’s often unconventional media presence, but even while the general public questioned his eccentric musings, the self-proclaimed “Icon” then surprised us all over again with an ambitious debut album that forced critics to take him seriously.
Just eight months after SYRE first dropped, Smith is back, once again defying convention with the release of SYRE: The Electric Album, which was first released exclusively via IGTV. The young rapper has used Instagram to promote his work before, creating grids comprised of snippets from SYRE and the videos that accompanied it, but Smith is the first major artist to debut an entire album on this particular platform.
At first glance, SYRE: The Electric Album might just seem like a stop-gap before the release of ERYS, Smith’s next full-length record. Not only is “GHOST” conspicuously absent, but the project only runs for five tracks total, each of which are reworked versions of songs previously heard on SYRE. However, labeling these ‘Electric’ versions as mere remixes does them all a disservice, as they each demonstrate a surprising evolution in Smith’s artistry, and no where is that more evident than in his new take on “Icon.”
“I'm about to do it way different”
Back when “Icon” first dropped, Jaden explained to Genius that he felt the need to play around with the song’s structure in order to live up to its title: “I have to do things in the song that are really not normal. That are not average things that people do in songs.” This philosophy permeates every aspect of SYRE: The Electric Album, from the music and accompanying visuals to even the way that the record was released, all tying into a larger story.
“B,” “Ninety,” “Lost Boy,” “Fallen” … the first four songs on the record all experiment with form and genre, switching up the original raps for sung vocals and haunting production that evokes the work of Jaden’s own icons, including Kid Cudi and Kanye West. It soon becomes clear though that “Icon?” is the centerpiece of SYRE: The Electric Album, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given that the original remains Smith’s most popular single to date. What long time fans might not have expected though is just how much of a game changer “Icon?” truly is.
The official video for “Icon?” starts off just like the other four clips do, with the rather unusual sight of an amp that floats up high above the ground, hovering against the backdrop of a bright pink sunset. Fans of Jaden’s previous work will quickly realize that this and the other locations depicted throughout each of the new promos have appeared before in other videos taken from SYRE, firmly connecting The Electric Album with the narrative of its predecessor.
For the first few minutes of the “Icon?” promo, not much else happens visually though. Instead, the focus is on Jaden’s flow as he reinterprets the song at a far more relaxed pace than before, changing certain lyrics while adding unusual effects to his voice. While it’s interesting to hear the usually frantic song slowed down with a more introspective vibe, it’s not until halfway through that the true impact of “Icon?” is revealed.
“I need you to listen to the vision”
Out of nowhere, Smith appears for the first time, standing on top of a floating car where he breaks out into the kind of rapping that we’re more accustomed to hearing from the young star. Lyrically though, the song suddenly flips 180, replacing the typical hip-hop bravado of the original track with a far more reflective stance. No longer is Jaden “an icon living.” Instead, Smith now argues that we’re the true icons in this “story for the youth.”
Brags about Smith’s own record label and his cover on Highsnobiety are replaced with genuine concerns for what the future might bring humanity. For the first time ever, the young rapper’s humanitarian efforts completely take center stage in his music, fighting to empower his fans by asking us “What happens when we run out of oil and the soil goes dry and we can’t turn our lights on?” Instead of positioning himself as an icon with all the answers, Smith tells his listeners that “It gotta be you,” shifting the power to the listener. In an industry where rappers regularly compete to be the GOAT, this is a surprising shift in focus, even for Jaden.
In fact, “Icon?” doesn’t just subvert the gangster tropes that Smith embodied with gold chains and swagger on the original single. It actively tears them apart, exposing the futility of gang culture in the grand scheme of things with lines like “It don't matter who is who, if you know them from that crew 'cause we all lose.” As the track goes on, Smith sounds more and more weary, aged far beyond his twenty years, and this is rather appropriate given the amount of artistic growth that he’s displayed here in such a relatively short amount of time.
“I guess we all gotta grow up”
The question mark in the title of “Icon?” alludes to Smith’s reflective lyrics, yet by questioning his own bravado and where that places him in relation to the hip-hop industry at large, Jaden has never sounded more assured in his music. By fighting for change and publicly denouncing himself as an icon in this way, the young star is now proving himself to be exactly the icon we need right now.
SYRE was three years in the making when it finally dropped last November, so it’s remarkable that Jaden has developed so much as an artist in the eight months that have passed since. While “Icon” was a fun yet frantic song that lacked cohesion, “Icon?” is a powerful statement that reflects Smith’s genuine desire to make things better for everyone, and not just a chosen few. Detractors who previously mocked him for insisting that he’s an icon at such a young age might be surprised to see the personal growth on display here, moving beyond the “Beautiful Confusion” of his last record into something far more focused.
Smith once told Genius that he conceptualized the ‘Syre’ alter ego to distance his public persona from the music, explaining that “It’s time for a new awakening and a new consciousness.” However, it’s his work on The Electric Album and not the original SYRE collection that acts as a true rebirth for the talented young prodigy. The final lines of “Icon?” remind us that “ERYS is coming” and if the introspective stylings of this song are anything to go by, then Jaden Smith’s next album could sire in the most important chapter of his career yet, chasing genuine change rather than the pink sunsets of yesteryear.
Revisit our cover story with Jaden Smith from Issue 15 of 'Highsnobiety' Magazine right here.