Imagine how it must have felt to be the biggest movie star in the world while simultaneously spinning off hit after hit from a blockbuster album. That was Will Smith in the late ’90s. The erstwhile Fresh Prince had already been admirably balancing success as a rapper and actor for a good solid decade, in the process establishing a family-friendly foothold for hip-hop at the Grammys and on primetime TV. (As it turned out, parents did understand.) The run beginning with 1995’s Bad Boys took things to an entirely different level. Will Smith was the air we breathed. He was inescapable, especially once Independence Day and Men In Black rolled around to delight and infatuate young teen boys like myself. And in late 1997, after ruling the box office for two summers in a row, Smith found time for a blockbuster of the musical variety.
Big Willie Style, released 20 years ago this Saturday, was not an especially good album, but what it lacked in gravitas and innovation it made up for in Will Smith. He was personable and talented and on a Midas-level hot streak, so even the filler (of which there was much) coursed with a certain magnetism. And when applied to an arsenal of bulletproof singles built from samples of old disco and soul tracks, his charisma became as unstoppable on record as on screen. This was the same year Puff Daddy had taken over hip-hop building new hits out of old ones, ruling radio and MTV by barely tweaking classic source material from the likes of the Police and Diana Ross. If a businessman like Puff could succeed with that approach, you’d better believe a born entertainer like Will Smith could do it.
I’m sure there were many adults who enjoyed Big Willie Style. Albums don’t generally go nine times Platinum without some grown-up support. But it felt like the province of kids — particularly kids like me, too young to recognize the songs Smith was sampling and too ignorant to care about guest spots from Camp Lo and Cameo. (On the other hand, children of my ilk definitely knew title-track guest performer Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes due to TLC’s invasion of suburbia with “Waterfalls” a few years prior.) The album begins with a skit in which a hostile reporter outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre asks Smith questions like, “Do you think you make quote-unquote real rap music? Because I ain’t ever seen the Wu dancing with no singing alien.” Even if I was aware of the Wu-Tang Clan in eighth grade (I think I’d seen the “Triumph” video), I was oblivious to any tension between Smith’s pop crossover hits and “real” hip-hop. And even if I knew who Nasir Jones was (I didn’t), I wouldn’t have known to look for his name in the liner notes crediting him for some ghostwriting on two deep cuts.
As a different Philadelphian MC would later exposit, “It’s levels to this shit.” Smith was certainly trying to make a bestselling album fun and innocuous enough to appeal across demographic boundaries, but he was also clearly trying to assert his cred. This was his first solo album (although former musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff was involved on a handful of songs) and his first since becoming an A-list movie star, and throughout Big Willie Style he grapples with how to reconcile his roots with the lavish success he was now enjoying. This conflict plays out clearly (but as you can see from the lack of a Parental Advisory sticker, not explicitly) in the skits — a voice later accuses Smith of being a bougie sellout — but also in his own lyrics and creative decisions. He wouldn’t have collaborated with Camp Lo, whose “Luchini AKA This Is It” was popping that year, if he didn’t want to prove he was still conversant with the rap vanguard. He wouldn’t have rapped over the “Good Times” loop from “Rapper’s Delight” if he didn’t want to demonstrate his knowledge of hip-hop history — and, most likely, to remind listeners of his place in it.
That’s all well and good, but time has long since forgotten such ephemeral flexes. What we talk about when we talk about Big Willie Style is the hits, songs that for the most part came to outshine their source material in the popular consciousness. “Men In Black,” powered by popping bass and cheeky handclaps from Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots,” paved the way, but its zeitgeist moment had faded by the time the album dropped. The Nas cowrite “Just Cruisin,” another leftover from the Men In Black soundtrack, was released after Thanksgiving but never gained much traction. The album’s true signature tracks would be unleashed throughout 1998, providing a lighthearted foil to Smith’s acting gig opposite Gene Hackman in Enemy Of The State.
First came the relentlessly snappy hip-swinger “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” a Sister-Sledge-sampling smash that was ubiquitous at radio and MTV as well as basically every wedding, school dance, and pool party. It became Smith’s first #1 hit and introduced “jiggy” into the vocabulary of every nerdy white American, myself included. Next up was “Just The Two Of Us,” which flipped Bill Withers and Grover Washington’s love ballad into a song about Smith’s love for his young son, Trey (not to me confused with future professional oddball Jaden Smith). And when that one had run its course, Smith released “Miami,” a tune that turned the Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” into a beach-bash anthem that endured well into the following summer.
By that point the Wild West West promotional machine had taken over and Smith was moving on to a different album cycle. Although that movie’s goofy-ass theme song would become his second #1 single, it also would mark the end of his tenure as a music-biz behemoth. Starting with 1999’s comically titled Willennium, which shoehorned in “Wild Wild West” the same way Big Willie Style had incorporated “Men In Black,” he’d never have a genuine hit single again. Nowadays, with Smith struggling at the box office and largely ceding the spotlight to his weirdo kids, it’s easy to forget what a gargantuan cultural force he was during the Big Willie Style era. But take this former adolescent dweeb’s word for it: Back when Will Smith always seemed to be fighting off extraterrestrials on the big screen, he successfully pulled off a real-life invasion of his own.