On Tuesday, Suicide Squad member/Suicide Squad captive Will Smith shocked the audience at the Late Show With Stephen Colbert with an impromptu performance of his 1991 hit “Summertime.” It sure is cool — and even surprising — that after all these years, Will hasn’t forgotten his roots and still loves to perform the songs that made him famous!
… Or is it? As Smith’s bankability as a box-office draw has fallen over the course of the decade, he’s been spending a lot more time trying to remind America why we (used to?) love him. In recent years, Smith has “spontaneously” broken out into ’90s song while appearing on talk shows often enough to raise a few questions.
Is Smith trying to remind us that he can rap to gear up for his comeback album (again)? Does Jada put him up to this whenever he loses a bet? Is “Will Smith” a shameless clone created by the Content Industrial Complex to perform in highly shareable online videos?
The truth will come out one day. Until then, let’s look back at the many, many recent times Smith has tried to remind us that we are still living in the Willennium.
“Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” The Graham Norton Show (2012)
The Setup: Smith is ostensibly on this BBC talk show to discuss his latest hit film, Men in Black III. As the clip begins, Norton notes that despite Smith’s “phenomenal film career,” The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air remains ubiquitous. “Long as they screaming ‘Will,’ I’m cool,” Smith responds jovially, fully aware that he is still box-office gold. The man sitting next to him procures a keyboard and Smith barely feigns surprise as that familiar tambourine starts rattling.
The Performance: There’s no passion here — Smith doesn’t even bother to stand up. The audience (very into it) starts every verse for him. The most eventful moment in his performance is the bro-fist he offers the keyboardist. Here, Smith is a movie star trying to remember how to rap, not a rapper proving that he’s still got it. How quickly things would change.
The Verdict: 2/5 Dancing Carltons
“Summertime,” The Late Show With David Letterman (2013)
The Setup: The date is May 20, three days before After Earth would become Smith’s first box-office bomb in more than a decade. Maybe he knew — or at least feared — that the sci-fi flick would diminish him. As he walks onto the stage toward Letterman, the house band plays “Summertime,” and Will feels (maybe actually spontaneously?) inspired.
The Performance: Smith starts spitting sans mic, implying that this may have actually been an impromptu decision. Early in the first verse he bounds over to the band and snags a mic from Paul Shaffer. But he’s got too much energy — anxiety, perhaps? — and overpowers what should be a mellow injection of vitamin D. This is a preemptive charm offensive, a plea to be loved. The whole thing feels like a failure until the pitch-perfect camera mugging he does at the end — which reminds you, “Man, I really do love Will Smith.”
The Verdict: 3/5 Dancing Carltons
“Gettin’ Jiggy with It,” The Late Show With David Letterman (2015)
The Setup: A now-humbled Smith arrives on Letterman to promote Focus, his 2015 crime drama and soon-to-be second consecutive dud. Before we go further, consider how spectacularly successful a movie star Smith was at his prime. He’s the only actor to ever have eight consecutive no. 1 movies (which also grossed more than $100 million at the domestic box office), and only two of them were sequels. Will Smith was Hollywood … until he wasn’t.
The Performance: Will’s got trouble here: “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” is the most ’90s hit he ever made, and the least listenable decades later. Even with that in mind, this is a rough performance. There’s not even a gesture towards spontaneity — he embraces Dave, nods solemnly at Paul Shaffer, and proceeds to “get jiggy” as he dances toward the mic. He spits his rapid-fire verse competently, but his eyes are those of a defeated man. The Letterman crowd, scientifically proved to be the studio audience most likely to “get jiggy,” is unimpressed. Afterwards, Will assures Dave that he too can “get jiggy” because “there’s a Negro inside of you.” Big Willie, what happened to you?
The Verdict: 2/5 Dancing Carltons
“Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Ellen (2015)
The Setup: At yet another stop on the Focus promotional tour, Smith decides to entertain Ellen’s audience with a rendition of the Fresh Prince theme song. It’s the most famous rap song on earth. What could go wrong?
The Performance: It’s not clear if Will meant for this to be a Hunger Games–style trial testing the audience’s Fresh Prince knowledge, if he momentarily blanked on the lyrics, or if he just didn’t give a fuck, but this one is a disaster. After Smith and the crowd successfully rap the first half of the song together, everyone involved — including the guy who wrote the song — forget most of the words to the just-as-iconic second half! At one point, Smith soft-shoes mockingly in that way black folks do when they are exasperated by a group of white people. It’s pretty funny — but still doesn’t make this a good performance. “They gotta give me an instrumental or something,” Smith says to smooth over the awkward silence. We have reached the nadir of Smith self-karaoke.
The Verdict: 1/5 Dancing Carltons
“Medley,” The Graham Norton Show (2015)
The Setup: This also appears to be a promotional stop for Focus, but it couldn’t be more different from Smith’s other 2015 appearances. Aware his career is in crisis, Smith turns to the men that know him best to save him: DJ Jazzy Jeff, Carlton Banks (as played by Alfonso Ribeiro), and his own son Jaden.
The Performance: This clip is, to put it mildly, a ’90s tour de force. Smith starts with a freestyle referencing his first viral video, the “Fresh Prince” performance from 2012. Then he and DJ Jazzy Jeff launch into a mashup of the Fresh Prince theme and “Switch” (you vaguely remember “Switch”), which is catchy enough to get Heather Graham dancing. Next, Smith carts out Ribeiro to do the most famous dance in all of sitcom-dom. How can you top that? With an homage to the “Apache” dance, the second-best moment in Fresh Prince history (this is the best moment). The key to making this fun rather than desperate is that everybody appears to be having a good time — except Jaden, who looks like he lost a bet with Willow on who has to show up and grant dad the teen stamp of approval.
Verdict: 4/5 Dancing Carltons
“Summertime,” The Late Show With Stephen Colbert (2016)
The Setup: At this point, Smith has calculated that trotting out his ’90s hits is a clever way to promote his films now that no one watches talk shows for the actual talking. There is no way he happened to hear Colbert’s band playing “Summertime,” became suddenly nostalgic for 1991, and decided on the spot to perform. It’s a moment specifically engineered for virality.
The Performance: But none of that calculation matters, because the execution is sublime. Watch how Smith bobs his head enthusiastically as the music begins playing, fidgets as he talks to Colbert and then gestures toward the band, like he just can’t let this opportunity slip by. See how he reaches for the mic just moments before the first verse of the song starts. Watch the crowd leap to their feet rapturously. And most importantly, enjoy how his smooth, serene delivery perfectly matches the luxurious instrumentation. This is “Summertime” as it should be, lazily confident. And it’s delivered by the Will Smith that dominated the box office by charming his way across genres and centuries. Maybe Will has finally come terms with his role as the cool dad who spends his time repping for his kids and occasionally reliving past glories. Or maybe he just has his swagger back because he’s back where he belongs: Suicide Squad is set to be a box-office smash.
Verdict: 5/5 Dancing Carltons