‘Nobody wants this from Will Smith’: The song the actor hopes will clean up his image after the Oscars slap

The actor has just released ‘You Can Make It,’ a track about inner strength that some critics believe is part of his carefully planned comeback

Will Smith during his performance at the BET Awards on June 30.
Will Smith during his performance at the BET Awards on June 30.Kevin Winter (Getty Images)
Guillermo Alonso

In the Family Guy episode called McStroke, first broadcast on January 13, 2008, there is a scene that has gone down in posterity as one of the most accurate portraits pf popular culture’s perception of Will Smith’s music. The child of the family, Stewie, boasts that he is more popular with the kids than Will Smith’s “nice clean raps.” Smith is then shown rapping in the studio. His song includes lyrics such as: “I respect women when I’m on a date / I’ll take ‘em to the park or maybe the museum / And I only try to kiss ‘em if they’re ready.” And: “Help out your mom and dad by gettin’ a job / So you can help pay for school supplies.” Rap was supposed to be confrontational, hard and uncomfortable, but Will Smith, according to that parody, rapped to win the love of all ages, races and classes.

Before Smith was a movie star, he was a rapper. He called himself the Fresh Prince. In 1997, now singing as Will Smith, at the peak of his musical fame, he released an album called Big Willie Style. The kindest critics described it as “friendly, humorous pop-rap,” while the most cut-throat, such as NME’s Andy Crysell, called Smith “the Cliff Richard of rap.” In his review of the song Chasing Forever, Crysell wrote: “He bumbles lazily about buying his girlfriend a present in Tokyo, how he’d quite like it if his child grew up to be a doctor and that he’s been working very hard recently, and therefore feels like driving his snazzy car to the beach today.”

Smith was the rapper for all audiences, the cool actor, the public relations genius, the patriarch of a family that, although made some people (like the writer Terry McMillan) suspicion due to its business structure, has been popular with the masses for decades. Smith was all that until 2022, when he slapped Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars.

But the fourth installment of Bad Boys, released at the end of May, has been a success — a sign that audiences seem to have forgiven him, or that the nostalgia factor of the 1990s franchise is stronger than the backlash to the slap. Indeed, a final scene was added to the film’s script, in which Martin Lawrence’s character slaps Will Smith, a more than obvious reference to that episode. It was Smith’s way of asking for forgiveness through cinema, and was well received by audiences, but apparently he also needed to ask for forgiveness in music.

You Can Make It is the debut single of Smith’s first album in almost 20 years — a record that has the not-so-cryptic title of Dance in your Darkest Moments. Smith performed the song at the BET Awards about 10 days ago, in a messianic performance where he stood in the middle of a circle of fire. He began the performance by telling the crowd: “I don’t know who needs to hear this right now. But whatever’s going on in your life, I’m here to tell you: You can make it.”

Vulture described the show as part of the “Will Smith image-rehabilitation tour” in an article titled Nobody Wants This From Will Smith. You Can Make It moves between the macho self-improvement mumbo jumbo typically heard from so-called coaches on Instagram to playing the victim. “Believe me, they tried to bleed Will Smith dry/In the rearview mirror, I see adversity was the gift,” he sings.

Vulture said it showed “the urge to broadcast spiritual and psychological growth” with a mix of commerce. “You Can Make It addresses the ripple in Smith’s public perception where longtime fans are happy to continue supporting him, but some still feel he needs to be brought low. It’s draining. It’s sour. Nobody wants this from Will Smith.”

The Guardian reported in May about Smith’s “carefully choreographed comeback” that is looking to the past in a bid to remind the world how clean, familiar and cool Smith was. First came a new movie of the undeniably successful 1990s franchise, and now the actor has turned to a gospel song about faith and inner strength. It is also notable that Smith chose to perform at the BET Awards in what was his first time appearance at an awards ceremony since the Oscars scandal.

The BET Awards are organized by Black Entertainment Television and reward the best of African-American entertainment culture. His performance at the BET Awards sends a message since many opinion columns (in The Guardian, USA Today and The Washington Post, for example) argued that there were racist overtones to how the world responded to the Oscars slap. These opinion writers claim that there would have been less of a scandal if Smith had been white, arguing that white men have done worse things on television and not received as much criticism. In other words, if a Black person makes a mistake in public, they have to apologize many more times than a white person.

There is a certain symbolism in the fact that You Can Make It was performed at the BET Awards: perhaps Smith was asking forgiveness not from the world, but from the Black community for perpetuating the racist stereotype that Black men are violent. This, in a country where the Black community already faces sweeping problems, and where the murders of Trayvon Martin or George Floyd — at the hands of a racist vigilante and a police officer, respectively — have not been forgotten.

For now, Smith’s new song has timidly entered the gospel and Christian music charts but, with less than half a million plays on Spotify since its release 12 days ago, it doesn’t seem likely to spark renewed interest in Will Smith the musician. He probably doesn’t need it: his movie star profile in top form, and he has a personal fortune estimated at around $350 million. That’s not to mention the more than $360 million his latest film made at the box office. Perhaps that sends enough of a message.

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