Jaden Smith Presents a Cryptic Vision on Enigmatic Concept Album ‘ERYS’
Jaden Smith made his major label debut with 2017’s “SYRE,” titled with his own middle name. The album was a melodramatic outpouring taking inspiration from the myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and ultimately fell to his demise. Since then, Smith has released “The Sunset Tapes: A Cool Tape Story,” “SYRE: The Electric Album,” and pre-album teaser “ERYS IS COMING EP.” His ambitious 17-track full-length followup, “ERYS,” purports to effect a full reversal, as indicated by the inverted spelling. Having already got an album’s worth of emotion out of his system, Smith has described the new project as a “strict, hard rap album.” This is hardly accurate, although it does seem somewhat appropriate in a way. The degree to which Smith’s description is delusional fits the murky conceptual vision at the heart of the album. The story involves a figure named ERYS, somehow pronounced “Iris,” who takes charge of society with some sort of pink poison. The confused remaining plot is effectively conveyed by erratic stylistic darts left and right, to an effect both stimulating and confounding.
As “SYRE” began with four tracks each titled a single letter, spelling out the word “Blue,” “ERYS” starts by spelling out “Pink.” The significance of the latter color in this album is cryptic to say the least, and Smith’s commentary on the subject makes one wonder if he even knows what he’s rambling about. At any rate, it makes for somewhat thought provoking subject matter and music that seems to take inspiration from the elusive concept. Opener “P” emerges with gentle piano and singing from Smith’s sister “Willow,” along with his own occasional mumbled interjections, over overdriven guitar that gives the sense of something epic being imminent. Like the last album, “ERYS” begins with biblical references, specifically to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden of Eden. Near the end, Willow sings, “He took his glass and filled it with the sin… I had one drink and everything turned pink.” At this cue, we segue into “I,” which opens into sirens and commotion. Having sipped the mysterious pink poison, a world assumes form and takes shape over the albums hour-plus running time.
“I” employs standard trap stylings, and makes for an underwhelming introduction. Smith’s distorted vocals don’t quite suit him, as he doesn’t exhibit the best enunciation. He somewhat makes up for this lyrically, raising social issues such as the disenfranchisement of youth for minor crimes. Smith has been active in various causes, most notably the development of a water filtration system for Flint, Michigan, and moments of this song showcase his passion. “N” follows with an Auto-tune intro, featuring a melodic snippet lifted from Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” before taking on a dark, apocalyptic tone that’s at once trancelike and militant. Smith frames the song in the context of his last album, rapping, “Syre died in the sunset, don’t be like him / Erys was born in the dark and was handed a [censored.])” This marks the first of many words and phrases mysteriously bleeped out throughout the record. Perhaps Smith’s illustrious father Will Smith’s famous aversion to profanity in music has something to do with this. Tyler Cole and ¿Téo? Both feature on the song, and provide some sorely needed relief from an awkward performance by Smith that gets farcical at moments. Fortunately, Smith more than redeems himself on the following track, “N” suddenly taking on unprecedented proportions.
The track starts off fair enough and meanders freely, reaching a turning point when Willow steps in to restate her aforementioned bit from the opener, this time with a heightened emotion in her voice. A haze of guitar tweaks and incidentals gives way to a sudden, ruthless surge, which is abruptly cut off. Then comes a distorted buzz of machines and razors — full industrial fare, with Smith adopting a new hardcore edge, out of the blue, vaguely recalling the likes of Death Grips, and absolutely killing it in the most exhilarating moment yet. “NOIZE” builds on the momentum, with a busy, chaotic beat full of chainsaws and feedback, over which Smith boasts, “We the rascal, dead cam, punk kids… At a warehouse party.” Tyler the Creator drops a jaw-dropping verse, packing enough personality into every syllable to make his short appearance seem like plenty. His crisp delivery in the low register is an effective counterbalance to Smith’s restless flights between hypeman energy and mellow bellowing. By the end of the song, Smith is in cutting edge territory, having burst out of the album’s tepid beginnings, and taking the listener by storm.
“I-drip-or-is” delves deeper into trap sounds before cutting to a trippy ending bit with Smith cloaked in reverb, his more outre instincts again proving the most resonant. Reaffirming his harder alterego ERYS, he sings, “It ain’t 2017, I’m done with all the crying,” and as if to prove this, continues with his single “Again,” which places him over a gritty beat, trading in the angsty outbursts for more a more laid back flow, which he this time pulls off swimmingly. Lines like “Now I gotta get the whole Cartier catalog,” can come across as in poor taste, as Smith has no rags-to-riches story to warrant such obnoxious bragging. Then again, this is hip-hop, so presumably he has to speak the vernacular. He somewhat balances this out by keeping things downright weird, respectively assuming the personas of SYRE and then ERYS. As the former he whines, “Send you flowers every day / Climb the tallest mountain in the city,” and as the latter reacts, “Who the fuck turned this shit on, nigga?!”
Taking cue, “Got It” is trap by the book, condensed to just over a minute, and shows Smith at the top of his game with no elaborate conceits, just straight rapping. Then Smith takes us completely by surprise, going full punk rock with “Fire Dept.” The random placement of a punk track in a generally hip-hop record recalls The Roots’ “!!!!!!!” from their 2002 album “Phrenology.” At moments, Smith’s utterances approach something close to rapping, offering another variation of the infinite spins on punk-rap fusion that have surfaced over the years. The lyrics are not about much, just a spontaneous outpouring of energy, and after expelling it, Smith comfortably reverts to the more restrained stylings of “Mission.” He gets creative with his rapped/sung melodies, but ends up obscured by the busy production. The chaotic soundscape, punctuated by random bleeps, gives an off-kilter feel that’s still very punk in spirit. Smith seems to nod to the attitude at heart, dropping rebellious lines like “I’ll never be a XL freshman.”
The entirely sung “Summertime In Paris,” teaming Smith up again with his sister, is a stylistic standout. It’s “indie” in its disavowal of professionalism, with a combination of lazy singing and heart-on-sleeve sentiments. For all Smith’s talk about “ERYS” being an album of hard rapping, this song is decidedly soft. It’s an abysmal lyrical low point, with lines like, “When I’m not with you I feel awful / She likes my ideas, she say I’m thoughtful.” Like“Fire Dept,” the song finds Smith trying too hard to be a jack of all trades, at the expense of quality. On “Blackout,” a mellow, guitar-backed number, he tries his hand at the aesthetic popularized by Khalid, and then erupts into a combination of distorted guitars and Auto-tune indulgence that’s all grandiose gesture. The lovelorn lyrics get dramatic, with outbursts like “Next time you shoot me, just make sure you actually k**l me / So I don’t have to live with this purgatory state of confusion.” The tepid vocals and music capture the feel of a purgatory state more than they match the emotional intensity of sentiment.
“Pain” is another relatively exciting cut, breaking midway into a nebulous, evocative soundscape full of jazz, soul and old school hip-hop reference points. Smith delivers almost an entire verse with his voice pitched-down vocals, which creates a spacey disconnect befitting lyrics like “I’m just a runnin around / Running around,” making for one of the most thoroughly realized moments yet. Then comes “Chateau,” Smith’s fifth collaboration with A$AP Rocky. Over a modified breakbeat, Smith employs his most futuristic, processed vocals, as Rocky spits open-ended, ambiguous lyrics about the industry, seeming to balance boasts with reservations. The star power bleeds into “On My Own,” which pairs Smith proudly with his idol and inspiration Kid Cudi. Cudi puts his signature stamp on the tune, with the focus on positivity that has characterized his music as of late. A refrain of “in this zone,” culminating in “Baby yeah, we can go up,” zeroes in on a specific promising mentality. Smith returns to the biblical allusions, claiming, “I found Eden, between the Euphrates and the Tigris.” The two laidback voices complement one another, and the track ends in an Auto-tune-soaked trap extravaganza that shows Smith really letting go and shining.
“Riot” is largely a misstep, sounding like some estranged spectator’s idea of “rock.” It’s interesting in its reimagining of genres, but ultimately, insufferably tacky. Smith’s restrained singing is very much informed by the style that Cudi pioneered, but here presented with a relative paucity of musical context. The scream chorus sounds like the noise of a frustrated child, pounding his chest and throwing a tantrum. It seems ERYS has lapsed back into the character of SYRE, as the frustration is all born out of girl problems. Jay-Z would disapprove. Despite the new album’s emphasis on Smith’s harder, more direct and decisive proclivities, the sappiness spills out — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it makes for Smith’s most poetic lyrics of the album, in the final, titular track. “ERYS” opens to a noisy, feedback-laden backdrop, and Smith starts rapping, pitched-down and guns blazing, before another beat switch cuts to an unstructured bout of wallowing ruminations. Desperate musings about unrequited love give way to a struggle between the opposing forces of SYRE and ERYS, with Smith asking, “You still chasin’ the sky, or you a whole different guy?” Yet to make full sense of his conflicting tendencies, he ends the album with a phrase that effectively encapsulates the work at large: “a beautiful confusion.”
“ERYS” is altogether a patchy release, but one with moments of brilliance. The vague narrative arc of the album seems a bit hokey, and favors style over substance. This is exacerbated by the halfhearted forays into random genres. Smith’s versatility is admirable, but his stylistic detours come across more like parlour tricks than substantive expressions. On the other hand, Smith showcases a boldness that gives him an edge over his peers, and promises exciting music to come. A decade earlier, genre-hopping and elaborate conceptual underpinnings in a mainstream hip-hop album would have been revolutionary. In the contemporary landscape, with historically isolated musical forms overlapping by default, “ERYS” will enjoy a comfortable reception. A conceptual enigma and an engaging, volatile listen, it guarantees both the nodding and scratching of heads.
“ERYS” is available July 5 on Apple Music.