Like David Bowie and Eminem before him, Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 15 cover star Jaden Smith creatively explores his struggles with the world through a highly-stylized alter ego. The difference here, of course, is that Smith released his debut album at the tender age of 19, crafting the persona of 'Syre' at a point in his career when most still struggle to see past Smith’s white Batman suit and new age tweets. Whether you can reconcile the eccentricities of Smith’s public image with his music or not, it’s hard to deny that SYRE positions the young star as a bona fide artist, and exactly the kind of icon that the music industry needs right now.
Lyrics in the single “Icon” propose that creating record labels and shooting Nylon covers is what one needs to achieve this iconic status, but during an interview with Genius, Smith broke this down further, explaining that he feels like an icon precisely because he does things that no one else does. From crying in his music videos to even identifying previously as a vampire, Smith consistently defies expectations in a way that few other artists can match right now, and it all feels surprisingly genuine - precisely because of its absurdity. In Smith’s own words, “He’s officially an icon ‘cause we don’t understand,” and upon first listening to SYRE, it’s clear that Smith’s enigmatic outlook on life translates directly to his music as well.
SYRE Is a Beautiful Confusion of Genre and Style
Subtitled “A Beautiful Confusion,” SYRE is daunting in both scope and ambition, clocking in at over 70 minutes across 17 tracks. During the three years it took to record the album, Smith played around extensively with the concept of genre, shifting between colors and textures like the neon pink sunsets that light up each of his videos. On recent single “George Jeff,” Smith states that, “I'll kill myself to resurrect”, but it sounds like he’s already done so time and time again, tackling something bold and new on each track.
Smith himself describes this scattershot hybridity of genre as “Pop Runk,” explaining to us that the album draws inspiration from “rap, skate and punk.” On paper, this sounds like an exhaustive listening experience, and indeed, it takes several spins to truly begin making sense of SYRE as a whole. Folk, trap, metal… the influence of each is felt throughout the album, yet the record doesn’t bend under the weight of Smith’s artistic ambition.
Instead, Smith’s journey through the persona of Syre flows seamlessly from track to track thanks to an obsession with fluidity. Like SZA’s Ctrl or Frank Ocean’s Endless, each song on SYRE is connected through musical transitions and spoken interludes that work best when listened to in the order of the official track listing. Nowhere is this more evident than in the first four tracks of the album, which tell one unified story across multiple tracks. Separately titled “B,” “L,” “U,” & “E,” this four-part song opens with a stirring chorus from singer Pia Mia and sister Willow Smith who harmonize together about God and the Garden of Eden.
It’s a bold move to open one’s debut album with the voice of another, and it’s even bolder to experiment with form so early on in one’s career, drawing inspiration equally from William Shakespeare and The Bible. It’s this chameleonic appeal that represents Smith’s ideology best, incorporating themes that recur frequently throughout the rest of SYRE and help tie the album together as an experimental whole.
This willingness to venture beyond the norm speaks volumes about Smith’s intent as an artist, and the recognition he deserves as a rising icon in music. However, it’s precisely these lofty ambitions that can also deter more casual listeners, reminding them of Smith’s bizarre claims on social media and the platform of privilege that he speaks from. Amongst the mixed reviews that SYRE received upon release, a particularly damning critique from Pitchfork’s Kevin Lozano described Smith’s lyrics as “cringe-worthy” and claimed that the album is a “sophistic, paranoid fantasy that mixes new-age thinking with apocalyptic rhetoric.”
A New Fresh Prince Has Arrived
Such accusations didn’t deter Jaden Smith’s admirers though. Despite the album’s lack of commercial appeal, SYRE still peaked at #24 on the Billboard charts, resonating with a fan base that numbers almost 7 million on Twitter alone. Whether Smith is showing off on “Batman” or sharing his vulnerable side on deep cuts like “Lost Boy,” fans have found plenty to love among the many facets of Smith’s personality that are channeled through the character of Syre.
Of course, Smith isn’t the only artist out there who experiments with music in this way, and arguably, there are others who do it better, but few can match the intensity of Smith’s ambition at such a young age. Less than a week passed following the release of SYRE before Smith revealed plans to direct a film that’s designed to accompany the album sans music, and he’s also talked at length about branching out into K-pop too.
As if that didn’t sound exhausting enough, Smith also tackled two starring roles in Netflix shows over the past twelve months, pushing gender boundaries on both The Get Down and anime series Neo Yokio. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who have followed Smith’s career closely, as he infamously modeled womenswear during a shoot for Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2016 campaign alongside models Sarah Brannon, Jean Campbell and Rianne Van Rompaey.
Inevitably, such bold experimentation can incite a backlash, something which Smith has struggled with in the past. During a recent interview with Highsnobiety, Smith admitted that, “It’s hard for me to bear it sometimes, you know?... And I haven’t always been able to bear it in the way that I do.” However, the young star continues to push forward regardless, always chasing something new, and that’s what truly sets Smith apart as an icon in the making.
“I'm the Living Icarus, Relationships and Scars”
Whether it’s his desire to clean your dirty verses, work alongside director Christopher Nolan or save the 16,000 children who are dying of malnutrition each day, Smith is the busiest star on this astral plane or any other. It’s no surprise then that the character of Syre himself is defined by the sunsets he chases over and over in the lyrics. Time and time again, the album and the visuals that accompany it allude to this never-ending journey, one that reflects Smith’s own evolution as an artist through kaleidoscopic means.
Just a few weeks after the release of SYRE, Smith announced that he has already begun working on his sophomore album, which will be titled ERYS. Whether this project will continue in the vein of his debut or chase something new, let’s just hope that this self-described “Icarus” doesn’t venture too close to the sun in his future celestial muses.
After all, the hip-hop industry needs someone like Smith - someone who can record a rap album without once using the word 'bitch.' The music industry needs someone like Smith who isn’t afraid to take risks and even fail once in awhile. Most importantly of all though, young people need someone like Smith who tells us that we too can be icons if that’s what we aspire to be, and really, is there anything more iconic than that?
For more of our features, check out our Highsnobiety Class of 2018 to see which 10 artists we think are going to blow up this year right here.