During an interview with Genius last year, Jaden explained that he’s become an icon by doing things that no one else will do, and in the time since, the young star has set out to prove this by consistently defying expectations. Whether he’s exclusively releasing music via IGTV or seeming to reveal himself to be LGBTQ in an often homophobic industry, it’s become normal to expect the unexpected from Jaden Smith. Unsurprisingly, The Sunset Tapes: A Cool Tape Story continues this tradition, but not in the way that you might hope.
Before SYRE: A Beautiful Confusion, people found it hard to take Jaden seriously what with his new-age mysticism and unintentionally hilarious tweets. That all changed with the release of his first studio album, which saw the young star flex some rather impressive bars across a range of genres, crafting a concept that stood out from its contemporaries like the pink sunsets which appeared in each accompanying video.
Earlier in the year, Jaden followed this up with Syre: The Electric Album, which continued to experiment with form and genre by switching out the original raps from SYRE for haunting vocals that demonstrated a surprising evolution in Smith’s artistry. With such a trajectory, hopes were high for Jaden’s next project, yet for the most part, The Sunset Tapes falls short.
Running at half the length of SYRE and with no features to speak of, this mixtape is far more streamlined than its predecessor, but lacks the same ambition. Things start out strong with “SOHO,” which impresses with some simmering trap vibes and gorgeous harmonizing, but occasional forays into the bizarre begin to draw focus by the time that the album’s second track, “A Calabasas Freestyle,” kicks in.
Longtime fans probably won’t be deterred by lines like “Rap is just one of my fetishes, like a dragon that’s pregnant.” After all, this is Jaden at his most Jaden, but these madcap moments worked before because the majority of SYRE still cohered thematically, even in its oddest moments. “A Calabasas Freestyle” comes across as far more confused, boasting about “all these jets that we rented” one minute while superficially referencing more pressing social issues in the next: “Oh my, 'nother young black boy dead again.”
Almost six minutes long, “Play This on a Mountain at Sunset” continues this downward spiral, dragging on well into the night. With its otherworldly lyrics and ethereal production, the third song on The Sunset Tapes tries but fails to evoke the vibes that slow-burn standouts like “Fallen” or “Lost Boy” achieved on SYRE. References to the overarching SYRE mythos can also be heard in the lyrics themselves, prompting even more nostalgia for the music that Jaden recorded so successfully just a year before.
Throughout the song, Jaden warns a girl to standby, because things are “‘bout to blow up like a landmine,” yet it’s on the next track where The Sunset Tapes finally pick up some energy. “Plastic” is co-written by Omar Rambert and Melvin Lewis, the same men who previously worked with Jaden on songs like “Icon,” and it shows. Rather than lose himself in the production, Jaden rides the bounce of the beat here with swagger and confidence, spitting quick fire boasts that channel his enthusiasm into tongue-twisting bars, later echoed on “Better Things.”
“Distant” loses this momentum immediately with another left-field song that’s pleasant enough, but drifts by without making an impact. Though even this is preferable to the sprawling confusion that characterises “SYRE in Abbey Road,” which tries but fails to incorporate the abstract leanings of SYRE: The Electric Album into a more commercial offering.
Just as the gloom of night threatens to overwhelm The Sunset Tapes entirely, things pick up in the second half of the mixtape with the sweet dancehall vibes of “Yeah Yeah” where things are stripped back in a surprising shift towards romance. The psychedelic elements of Jaden’s music often evoke the likes of Kid Cudi or Kanye West, but on “Yeah Yeah,” he proves that he can sing gorgeous harmonies too, channeling Drake for once instead of his usual idols.
“Yeah Yeah” isn’t the only standout song on the album, but its commercial appeal is worlds away from the other highlights which are stacked up at the end and showcase a more intimate kind of vulnerability. In both “FALLEN Part 2” and “Rollin Around,” Jaden taps into melancholia with far more success than he does earlier on in the mixtape, redeeming the project as a whole by focusing on what he does best.
Jaden recently revealed that he wrote the sequel to “Fallen” as an apology for his ex-girlfriend, Odessa Adlon, and with a lack of any chorus to speak of, the song does feel like a stream of consciousness that stems from his regrets. As anyone who follows him on Twitter should know by now, Jaden isn’t one to hold back with his feelings, but The Sunset Tapes somehow feel less authentic overall than previous efforts, which is why the few vulnerable offerings like “FALLEN Part 2” resonate so strongly here.
Although SYRE was an eclectic body of work, Jaden pulled it all together with a coherent story arc about the boy who chases sunsets, unifying each genre experiment into a collective whole. Unfortunately, The Sunset Tapes doesn’t quite cohere in the same way, something which Jaden inadvertently makes reference to on the song “Ten Ten” when he says that there’s “too much switchin' lanes, always.”
Switching lanes can keep things fresh, but here it sounds more like Jaden doesn’t really know what he wants to achieve. The promo material reflected this too, most notably when he revealed that The Sunset Tapes is best described as a spin-off from The Cool Tapes, comparable to the way that Rogue One is considered to be a Star Wars story rather than a direct continuation of the franchise. Right.
It’s no coincidence that Jaden released The Sunset Tapes exactly one year after SYRE: A Beautiful Confusion. The boy who chases sunsets casts a wide shadow over this project, one that Jaden has struggled to catch up with. Let’s just hope that he releases the “extremely hard” follow up soon or the beautiful confusion that this mixtape is lost in might threaten to overwhelm his music career completely.