WILLOW embraces inner riot grrrl in ‘Lately I Feel Everything’

Willow Smith's album cover
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Grade: 4.0/5.0 

It should come as no surprise to those who listened to Radio Disney in 2010 that the 9-year-old who sang “Whip My Hair” wrote a full punk-inspired record just a decade later. Straying from her alternative R&B/dream-pop style, former child star WILLOW released her fourth album, Lately I Feel Everything, July 16. This 11-track pop-punk collection is guaranteed to leave listeners either aching to mosh, or sprinting to their nearest Hot Topic. 

The album hits the ground running: “Transparentsoul,” featuring Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, has already accumulated more than 70 million Spotify plays. Released two months before the remainder of the album, this signature single served as a teaser for the record’s bold pop-punk revival. Inviting younger fans to indulge in feelings of angsty nostalgia, Barker’s upbeat drums and WILLOW’s teen-romance inspired lyrics such as “I knew a boy just you / he’s a snake just like you,” resemble 2000s pop-punk staples such as Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi” and Paramore’s “Still Into You.” 

In contrast, the singular drumbeat and firey, feminine vocals on “F**k You” transport listeners back to the late-‘90s “riot grrrl” era. The song’s impassioned yet informal stylistic elements take after those of feminist girl bands such as Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and Bratmobile. Additionally, despite its short duration, the powerful bass on “Don’t Save Me” makes it one of the album’s stand-out pieces. 

Another stand-out, “Xtra,” featuring Tierra Whack, is arguably the most innovative and unique track on the album. The song roots itself in a 2010s alternative-rock inspired instrumental while simultaneously spotlighting Tierra Whack’s 2021 pop-rap flow, all while allowing for WILLOW’s melodic, pop-punk vocals to shine through. It sounds like an uncanny collaboration between Tierra Whack, Jesse Rutherford and Hayley Williams — the combination of 21st-century musicians you didn’t know you needed. While other tracks merely echo the pop-punk and “riot grrrl” genres, “Xtra” effectively blends musical styles in a truly novel and enchanting manner, perhaps even opening the door for future pop-punk records to be more intersectional and stylistically flexible.

The album’s youthful spirit of 2000s-era nostalgia reaches its climax with the song “Grow,” which features the familiar voice of the one and only Canadian Y2K icon and self-proclaimed “rock chick”: Avril Lavigne. Compositionally, the song is pretty standard — its punchy instrumental and catchy hook make for a solid yet conventional pop-punk jam. Its lyrical messaging is simple: WILLOW celebrates her self-improvement but recognizes that she still has room to grow. The song sounds like it came straight out of a Lindsay Lohan movie soundtrack, with its anodyne verbiage making it the perfect potential Kids’ Bop bop. In spite of this simplicity, “Grow” uniquely captures the zeitgeist of 2021 America: As we grapple with the impending doom of global insurrections, climate change and pandemics, the only thing left to celebrate is our own personal growth — and Avril Lavigne, of course.

Though the album as a whole is strong, it could benefit from some growth as well: Although each song is catchy and entertaining, several tracks feel underdeveloped due to their short length. Some songs are more forgettable than others, causing them to blend together toward the middle of the album. Certain lyrics feel a bit empty and cliche, such as the line “I like you, you like me” on the song “Gaslight” — whether or not the title “Gaslight” is ironic remains a mystery. 

Overall, though, Lately I Feel Everything is a head-bopping victory. Its playful punk tunes transition smoothly, the mixing is solid and WILLOW’s commanding vocals suit the genre well. Refreshingly, WILLOW’s Y2K-inspired lyrical references to the trials and tribulations of passionate teen romance offer a nostalgic and campy deviation from the gloomy 2020s, reminding listeners to not always take life too seriously. 

Always seeking to break musical and social barriers, WILLOW’s refusal to stick to one genre box is inspiring, as is her drive to pursue creative authenticity as a Black woman in a white-dominated genre. Regardless of one’s stance on the growing pop-punk revival movement, it’s undeniable that WILLOW’s vivacious spirit, which beams through in each track on Lately I Feel Everything, will put a smile on anyone’s face and a pep in anyone’s step.

Contact Piper Samuels at [email protected].