Will Smith started out his career as a gangsta rapper.
I understand that it feels stupid to read or consider that for the first time, but did you know that when Alfred Wegener first presented the idea of continental drift in 1912, he was widely criticized and mocked? That’s true. Scientists used to think that there were mountains on the earth because the earth was shrinking and the mountains were just excess material pushing up on itself, like how after you blow a balloon up real big and then let all the air out of it, it gets wrinkly. So:
There was this album that came out in November of 1987 called N.W.A. and the Posse. Occasionally it gets listed as NWA’s first album, but it was just a compilation album that starred NWA. (This was about nine months before they released Straight Outta Compton, the album that made them the most famous gangsta rap group of all time.) N.W.A. and the Posse had 11 songs on it. Five of the songs were by acts that had some sort of tie to NWA but weren’t actually in the group (the Posse, as it were), and the remaining six featured members of NWA. I mention this all because one of the songs led by an NWA member has an important connection to Will Smith, otherwise known as the Fresh Prince, otherwise known as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The song is called “Fat Girl.” It’s by Eazy-E and Ron-De-Vu, and it’s about a woman Eazy-E says is overweight and also in love with him.
In the second verse, Eazy-E describes an altercation between the two: She begins aggressively pursuing him, hugging him and kissing on him without his permission. There’s a point where she gives him a hug so big that she lifts his tiny body up off the ground, and that’s just a great and happy thing to think about — his little Nike Cortez gangster shoes dangling at the end of his helpless legs.
But then he breaks free of her grip, runs to his house, and begins loading a gun to defend himself. (This seems like an overreaction on his part.) She comes running at him and he tries to shoot her, but his gun jams so he grabs a harpoon gun(!) and swings it at her. It’s unclear whether or not he hits her with it — he raps, “As I swung, the fat girl fell,” which leaves it open to interpretation — but based on the provocative nature of Eazy-E’s songs, I’m inclined to believe that he connected. (However, prior to this moment, I was also inclined to believe that Eazy-E was not an avid marine-life hunter — having ready access to his own harpoon gun would seem to suggest otherwise, so there’s a chance I’m wrong here, too.) It’s a weird scene and a hostile scene, but not one that seems even a tiny bit strange happening in NWA’s version of the universe.
And this all connects back to Will Smith, whose gummy-rap music is generally considered the antithesis to NWA’s gangsta rap anarchy. Here’s how:
Seven months before N.W.A. and the Posse was released, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff put out their first album, Rock the House. The first song on the album is called “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” and it’s about how girls aren’t anything but trouble (rappers in the ’80s liked to title their songs in the most direct ways possible). It’s fun and it’s catchy and Will Smith is Will Smith so it all feels very nonthreatening to listen to, even today. But the thing of it is: Nearly the exact same scenario plays out with Smith and a girl as in Eazy-E’s “Fat Girl,” and it ends just as violently, if not more so, depending on how you feel about trash cans. Smith meets a girl, they make chitchat, then she becomes aggressive. He raps, “She started grabbin’ all over me and kissing and hugging,” and so what do you think Smith does to this girl who is grabbin’ all over him and kissing and hugging? I’ll tell you what he does, because if you don’t already know then you’ll never, ever guess: He fucking punches her in the chin. Can you even believe that? Picture that. Picture Will Smith punching a woman in the chin. It’s as unfunny to think about as it is funny to think about Eazy-E getting lifted up off the ground during a hug.
There’s a version of “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” that came out in 1988 and it had a proper video, so it’s the way more popular version of the song. In that one, he just shoves her away after she starts kissing on him. But the punch is there in the original version on Rock The House. The full line is, “She started grabbin’ all over me and kissing and hugging / So I punched her in her chin, I said, ‘You better stop buggin’!’” After he punches her, the woman starts yelling that she’s been raped(!!), and so guess how he responds to that? He hits her again, except this time WITH A GODDAMN TRASH CAN. The full lyric: “I got scared when she started to yell / So I hit her with a trash can and ran like hell.” (They scrubbed this part from the 1988 version as well. In that version, he gives her his wallet and runs away. Which is not a better solution.) The police eventually catch him, beat him, and he’s sent to prison for aggravated assault. All of that happens in the first verse of the first song of the first album of Will Smith’s rap career. He hits a woman, gets falsely accused of rape, hits the woman with a trash can, gets beaten near to death by the police, then goes to prison.
Will Smith was Eazy-E before Eazy-E was Eazy-E.
There are more examples, too. There’s a part in “Just One of Those Days,” which is also from Rock the House, where Smith admits to having grabbed a girl’s butt because she was so beautiful that he just couldn’t control himself. When he gets scolded by the teacher about it (the fondling happened on school grounds), Smith explains it away as “just a bad habit,” which would, to me, imply that he was habitually attacking women sexually, a hallmark of a specific type of gangsta rap. When the school’s disciplinary staff presses him further, Smith passes the blame: “She put it in my face, she must’ve wanted me to grab it,” he says, and it sounds like when Ice Cube rapped, “I once knew a bitch who got slapped / ’Cuz she played me like she was all that,” on “A Bitch Iz a Bitch” a few months later.
Will Smith was also Ice Cube before Ice Cube was Ice Cube.
Later in the same song, Smith steals a bicycle from a kid, gets chased by the police, and crashes the bicycle because he gets distracted when a different attractive girl walks by and he has to look at her (despite running from the police). After he crashes he gets caught again, arrested again, then locked up again. While in jail he threatens to fight the police if they don’t let him go, and there’s of course a long and storied history of gangsta rappers versus the police.
On “Rock the House” he advocates drinking alcohol and shames people who don’t. On “Just Rockin’” he describes himself as someone who will strangle people, and I’m reminded right now of the time Eazy-E described himself as someone who would “smother your mother” on “Straight Outta Compton” in 1988.
On his and Jazzy Jeff’s second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper (1988), the first song is called “Nightmare on My Street” and ends with Smith narrowly avoiding death, but then having to listen to his best friend get killed. Nearly getting killed is a common theme in gangsta rap, as is the experience of suffering through the loss of a loved one. On “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” Smith steals a Porsche, then uses it to pick up a woman he sees walking around and hopes to sleep with, only he finds out after he gets arrested that she was 12 years old, and all of a sudden we are into very dicey and uncomfortable territory. There’s an entire song on HTDJITR about a 6-foot-6 monster named Charlie Mack with whom Smith travels. Smith says Mack killed a man over a waffle and has, on several occasions, chosen to eaten a person’s face because the person was being discourteous. The most telling moment, though, comes when Smith narrates an attack in real time and tells Mack of his victim, “Kick his face again, I think you missed a spot.” Do you understand how vicious that is? This person has been kicked in the face at least one time already, and one kick to the face is generally plenty. But Smith wants another kick, simply because he can. That’s bloodlust. That’s a desire for destruction, for chaos, for mayhem.
These sorts of things disappeared from Smith’s music as his career moved forward, a move that wasn’t altogether unexpected given the way “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” evolved from the original version to the popularized version. Soon he was a sitcom star, a movie star, a “Summertime” star. Will Smith certainly didn’t end his career as a gangsta rapper. But he started it as one.