Willow Goes Pop-Punk For Petulant, Powerful ‘Lately I Feel Everything’

Pop-punk captures the mercurial, petulant mindset of teenagers better than any other genre. The fact that almost nobody except teenagers listens to it — at least after entering their twenties and beyond — feels like evidence enough; but even with decades of songs from other genres to mope to, there’s something beautifully raucous, impulsive and imprecise that synchronizes with the sentimentality of people experiencing a whole lot of feelings all at once without the patience or maturity to process them in a more measured way. Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour” almost single-handedly brought it back from the dead by folding it into her eclectic, explosively popular sound (especially on the album opener “Brutal”); and now Willow hopes to further revitalize its commercial prospects (much less its anthemic resonance) on “Lately I Feel Everything,” a restless, nimble collection of songs that carry forward pop-punk’s propulsive sneer while showcasing her versatility and talent.

The mononymous youngest child of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith inherits a considerable musical legacy, not just from her father’s historic rap career but Pinkett Smith’s 20-year tenure as vocalist for the heavy metal band Wicked Wisdom. Whether because of the combined influence of her parents’ output or simply the crumbling definitions of genre, Willow comes honestly — almost painfully so — to pop-punk for this new record, which will not likely sway older listeners to pay attention to her but it does nevertheless confidently encapsulate an urgent and impetuous point of view. Though he’s become a percussionist and producer for hip-hop artists since his days with Blink-182, Travis Barker lends his elder-statesman gravitas to the opener “Transparent Soul,” and the song perfectly communicates what to expect from the rest of the album: call-and-response verses, punctuative four-letter words, wall-to-wall guitars and drums pounded without restraint or a consistent need for accuracy.

The unique perspective Willow brings to a sing like this isn’t merely that of an open bisexual, trading partners and pronouns as she crafts these two- and three-minute treatises; but as on “Transparent Soul,” she also must contend with being household name, or at least related to one (“I don’t fucking know if it’s paradise or it’s a trap / Yeah, they’re treating me like royalty, but is it kissin’ ass?”). It’s an interesting departure from one of punk’s (and even pop punk’s) foundational elements, after so many groups evolved out of obscurity, from low or modest-income communities — a celebrity as misunderstood outcast. But also, the musicianship here is just tight enough for its target audience not to notice, or maybe care, that they’re being sold blue collar angst with a silver spoon pedigree. 

Barker does not contribute to “Fuck You,” a sketch that feels like a parody of teenage breakup songwriting, with drumming that is well below his skill level. But he does return for “Gaslight,” one minute and 49 seconds of longing in a relationship where Willow’s partner can’t seem to communicate her intentions clearly. Both of the tracks would have been absolutely huge on Total Request Live back in 2001, but finding a place for them may prove to be a bigger challenge in today’s crowded pop marketplace; if she didn’t pivot to grunge on “Don’t Save Me,” it would almost seem like she was anticipating how to meet audience demand with what she’s supplying, but the transition more accurately characterizes her lack of interest in settling on a single musical style. “I’m all for getting rid of the categories and just doing whatever you feel,” she told Alternative Press in June. But as she dips into Mazzy Star-like grunge a second time on the socially conscious “Naïve,” the emphatic answer to what she feels becomes, “what do listeners want to hear?” It will be interesting to see how strongly this resonates with fans of her earlier work, much less with pop’s prevailing tides, but it’s catchier and more appealing than even longtime fans of these genres might expect.

Of course, Gen Z has (fairly or unfairly) become defined by a studied obliviousness to what has come before, so what makes her shuffling of these sounds feel fresh is a series of performances that ignore what they’re copying — or even the fact that they’re copying at all. From the chugging angst-rock of “Lipstick” to the swinging double-time melancholy of “Come Home,” she approaches the blueprints of these songs like empty scaffolding that no one completed with walls, or floors; Ayla Tesler-Mabe thickens up harmonies on the latter as Willow pleads “I need you right now, baby won’t you come home,” and it’s almost like Paramore never existed. “4ever” continues the pity party a little too long as Willow laments, “I know, you know, we know, this can’t last forever,” but it also feels entirely believable that the target audience for this record would by now be firing up their lighters  — or given their likely age, their cell phone flashlights — if she performed this symphony of sadness live.

If Barker doesn’t shore up the record’s vintage mall-punk bona fides, Willow wraps the album with “Grow,” featuring none other than Avril Lavigne, and “Breakout” featuring Cherry Glazer. The latter feels like concentric circles of pop culture inspiration folding on themselves — “No one woman should have all that power,” Willow pull-quotes from Kanye West’s “Power,” with questionable knowledge of its origin as a line of dialogue in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” in a verse-chorus-verse structure that unfolds like a thick, defiant slab of nu-metal — while the former suggests her version of the “dream duet with my idol” that Miley Cyrus did more coolly, and effectively, with Stevie Nicks on “Edge of Midnight.” But perhaps appropriately, Willow’s coolness comes from not caring if any of this sounds cool, or relevant, or commercial, as she taps into that reservoir of emotion oozing out of every 20-year-old pore in her body. “Lately I Feel Everything” may not be a record that transcends its own era, and certainly not its influences, but it offers a pretty complete statement about what it means to be young and privileged and restless all the same. 20 years after Barker and Lavigne’s heyday, the sound still isn’t punk, but Willow makes it pop.

Lately I Feel Everything” releases July 16 on Apple Music.