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Willow Heals Herself and the World

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By Maya Mackey 

Willow Smith’s new album, Empathogen, is a breath of fresh air. A palate cleanse following rap beefs and Celebrity sexual abuse allegations. A jazz album with a dollop of rock, “Empathogen” feels like yellow and sounds like Spring.

The album opens up with Home, a feature with John Batiste who declares” I love eveything!” Shortly after, Willow lets us in on her life philosophy.   “I live my life in a river of grace. I trust this river to carry me home. ” She lives her life in surrender to the What Is. But she wants her audience to know arriving to this place has been a journey. 

“Symptom of Life,” the lead single of “Empathogen,” serves almost like a mission statement. It holds a magnifying glass to today’s society, asking how we’re going to move against the darkness we see. The song serves as both an encouragement: “Magic is real, when you see it inside, you decide,” and a call to action:

Feast my eyes on lower things

While beauty is a symptom of life

Gotta decide if I’m gonna see it, why?

Feast our eyes on lower things

When suffering is craving the light

Gotta decide how we’re gonna heal it.

Pairing the me with we almost feels like a call and response, a common format in gospel music and it’s a nice cultural touch to such a soulful album. 

But I digress.

Beyond moral calls to action and reminders to practice good mental health,   this album is Willow’s deeply reflective journey on a search for her identity. She questions who she is multiple times, shares stories of trying and failing to run from herself and ultimately in the album finale, “Big Feelings,” comes to understand that, “ [self] acceptance is the key. Acceptance gives [her] wings.”

With affirmations like, “The fear isn’t real, the battle’s not mine,” Willow really tries to manage her big feelings and anxiety. She explains the struggle of wanting to live free, happy and unbothered but knowing sometimes you have fall apart in order to reach that state of emotional nirvana. She admits:

 “Don’t really wanna,

But I think I need to fall to pieces 

Don’t really wanna, But it’s funny ’cause I think I need it.” 

She ultimately chooses to surrender and cultivate a practice of solitude. A disciplined one at that and that discipline is no doubt a trait instilled by both of her parents. While she lets us know intentional solitude is not always fun, she chooses to cling to the benefits at the end of the day. 

In “The Fear is Not Real”:

“In the silence, I can hear inside my mind

In the silence, I can’t wear my disguise.”

If you still see Willow Smith as the 10 year old girl whipping her braids back’ n’ forth, Empathogen is your wake up call. She’s a woman now. And a brave one at that–willing  to stare her anxiety in the face and wrestle with her fears of existentialism.

“I tried to fight it

The truth came back to bite me

But I wanna feel it, wanna see it

Even though it eats me whole.”

Her truth seems to be that life is more beautiful than we give it credit for. And that if we can just learn to fight through our anxieties and mental distortions, we could all feel OK. Her truth is that she’d rather experience the real and raw, even if it sucks than live under a pretense of,  “I’m fine.”

This album cycles through the emotional extremities of life. Starting off with hope and innocence, ending with confusion and angst and then starting all over again. 

That’s life. Fighting to hold the balance of wonder and doubt, fear and courage, passion and apathy.

Willow asks us all to choose the good and to accept ourselves in the moments that we can’t. 

*All quoted lyrics are the work of Willow Smith and Chris Greatti

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