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The Misunderstood Legacy of Will Smith’s Music Career


The Misunderstood Legacy of Will Smith’s Music Career

This Sunday, Peacock will premiere the first episode of Bel-Air, a contemporary, dramatic reimagining of the beloved ’90s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. To mark the occasion, The Ringer is looking back on the legacy of the original series and the influence of the star who defined it, Will Smith. This is a story all about how pop culture got flipped, turned upside down. Welcome to Fresh Prince Day.

“Will Smith” means “movie star.” It’s been a couple decades since “Will Smith” last meant “rapper,” and it’s been 10,000 years since “The Fresh Prince” signified something other than a classic sitcom in perpetual syndication. To this day we call O’Shea Jackson (who?) Ice Cube. The same goes for Ice T, Queen Latifah, and LL Cool J. What about the Fresh Prince? The first rapper to win a Grammy? What do we make of the three consecutive decades when Will Smith ranked among the biggest rappers on the planet?

His earliest songs—“Parents Just Don’t Understand,” “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble,” “A Nightmare on My Street”—were cool but they were also a bit corny. DJ Jazzy Jeff was a virtuoso with priceless musical innovations, such as the transformer scratch, to his credit. But the Fresh Prince always seemed a bit disengaged from the more competitive postures and movements in contemporary hip-hop. Even the meathead LL Cool J wanted to be the best in addition to being the biggest; the Fresh Prince just wanted to be the biggest. His ambition made for a contrarian outlook. It was proudly suburban. It was explicitly swear-free. It was weirdly unburdened by “top five, dead or alive” standards. These weren’t songs for the streets. These were songs for the mall. This was bottle service for the ball pit.

It’s easy for anyone younger than Funkmaster Flex to listen to hip-hop from the 1980s and hear nothing but rough experimentation until Paid in Full, Bigger and Deffer, and Criminal Minded, each released in 1987. The genre had spent a decade learning to speak. On “Summertime,” the Fresh Prince mimics Rakim and succeeds despite the obvious discrepancies; Rakim’s…

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