BY Noah CiubotaruPublished Oct 6, 2022

Around the outset of summer 2021, articles declaring a pop-punk revival started to proliferate, hypothesizing its causes and naming its ambassadors. It seemed simple to do the latter; Olivia Rodrigo had released her debut album SOUR at the end of May, with its Paramore-indebted single "good 4 u" gripping the top of the Hot 100, while WILLOW was in the midst of rolling out lately I feel EVERYTHING, which was riding the momentum generated by her Travis Barker-assisted anthem "t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l." Regarding the causes of this phenomenon, most of the articles surmised that Gen Z, having had pivotal adolescent years disrupted by the pandemic and having borne witness to staggering societal collapse, was understandably resonating with the angst of pop-punk. 

This analysis was coherent enough, but the articles seemed as formulaic as the TikTok trends that were spawning the genre's latest hits. "good 4 u" and "t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l" were primarily soundtracking clips of cosmetic transformation, while the pop-punk revival was being lauded for capturing our cultural malaise and the youth's spirit of rebellion. A more measured narrative might acknowledge the talent of these artists and the merit of their songs, while also acknowledging the disconnect between what goes viral on social media and what is indicative of a meaningful shift in contemporary music. One year removed from that influx of pop-punk think pieces, the genre is largely absent from the charts, and WILLOW is already evolving out of it, looking beyond the movement she was deemed to be leading.

A hunger for growth and reinvention has marked WILLOW's music career, which dates back to when she was only nine years old. It's become a well-known piece of pop culture trivia that Willow Smith shaved her head during her 2012 "Whip My Hair" tour, subverting the lyrics of the megahit that gave the tour its title and evidencing her nascent disinterest in the music industry. Rather than becoming another child star molded by the whims of record label executives and target audiences, WILLOW began diving deep into her homeschool curriculum of spiritualism and metaphysics, and emerged with unique, precocious approaches to alternative rock and R&B. She covered King Krule and collaborated with SZA before either of them had attained the rarified status they currently hold, but the dominant voice in WILLOW's music has always been her own. 

Her debut album, 2015's Ardipithicus, was a cluster of experiments — lurching from industrial beats to tribal chants and neo-soul swings — that was often bogged down by cumbersome lyrics about the dimensions of consciousness and how she sought to unlock higher ones. Nonetheless, it demonstrated her omnivorous sonic interests as well as the power of her malleable voice, able to accommodate all of them.

Which takes us to the present day, and the release of WILLOW's fifth solo record, COPINGMECHANISM, which ultimately strives for a rock sound harder and more varied than pop-punk. To this end, she enlisted Chris Greatti, the multi-instrumentalist who's been recording and touring with one of today's most innovative rock acts (and COPING's sole feature), Yves Tumor. WILLOW's pointed vision and eagerness to push the envelope allowed her and Greatti to construct songs that consistently take unexpected turns yet culminate in her most cohesive project to date. 

The drastic melodic and rhythmic shifts between verses and choruses on COPINGMECHANISM wouldn't work nearly as often if WILLOW's vocal elasticity weren't such a marvel. On the title track, she switches personas every few lines, either shouting with sass or sounding deflated as she drops into a lower register. On the equally volatile "curious/furious," her rage is made palpable through blood-boiling screams that suddenly interrupt her falsetto once the drums start picking up mid-verse. The lyrics of don't veer too far from some that appeared on Ardipithicus — WILLOW is still "walking through a darkened forest," where "the wind in the trees [whisper] mathematics" — but her philosophical musings are scaled back to fit more comfortably within the constraints of tighter, catchier structures. Rather than spelling everything out in words, she leverages her vocal range to convey her sharp swings between all-consuming emotions; assured of the world's ordered nature in one moment, fearful that chaos is imminent in the next.  

The highlights of COPING might still be the one-two punch of its lead singles: "maybe it's my fault" and "hover like a GODDESS." There are several moments on the album where WILLOW spirals into a vortex of drop-tuned guitar ("Falling Endlessly," "ur a stranger"), but "maybe it's my fault" harnesses that power to greatest effect. And while the accelerating, tumbling cadence of Hayley Williams creeps into "hover like a GODDESS," the bold decision to slow the song down for a moment at its apex to let out an angelic R&B run is distinctly WILLOW. She indulges that penchant again on "No Control," a gorgeous track that features one of her most mature and ambitious vocal performances, filled with pain and sincerity. It couldn't fit neatly into any one genre and bears traces of everywhere WILLOW has been throughout her career, which feels both storied and like it's only just beginning. 
(MSFTS Music/Roc Nation)

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