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By Stereo Williams

Published Sat, July 16, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT

Up until very recently (let's say March 2022), it was pretty easy to view Will Smith as having had a charmed career. The megastar with the multi-hyphenate career has seemingly done it all. But when looking back at his journey, it's easy to spot just how many times the man took risks. Calculated risks, sure—but risks, nonetheless.

After 1993's gold-selling Code Red, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince officially called it quits. The duo of "Jazzy" Jeff Townes and rapper Will Smith had scaled unimaginable heights together since they debuted in 1987 with Rock The House. They'd crafted a winning formula; with infectious production backing The Fresh Prince's humorous story raps, the duo had won Grammys and sold millions. Along the way, Will Smith had become an unexpected television star. In 1990, on the heels of winning their first Grammy, Smith was tapped to star in the Quincy Jones-produced NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. The show became a runaway hit and Smith became a TV fixture; only to make the jump to movies with roles in films like the Whoopi Goldberg comedy Made In America and a well-received dramatic turn in 1993's Six Degrees Of Separation.



But it was the 1995 blockbuster Bad Boys that changed everything about Smith's career trajectory. Once the Michael Bay-directed buddy cop flick hit theaters that summer, with former sitcom stars Smith and Martin Lawrence paired together in one of the biggest action movies of the year, the stage was set for Smith to become a full-fledged action hero. Bad Boys grossed $141,407,024 worldwide; and suddenly, Will Smith was a movie megastar. He followed it with another huge box office hit: 1996's sci-fi popcorn flick Independence Day. The movie was the biggest of 1996 and the 2nd biggest of all time (at the time), grossing $817,400,891 globally. And, as wisecracking U.S. Marine Captain Steven Hiller, Will Smith sat centerstage in one of the biggest movies ever made.



But a funny thing happened after Will Smith became a box office star; 1997s Men In Black presented the rapper/actor with an opportunity to meld his two loves. Here was a summer blockbuster that needed a theme song. And who better to provide than it's Grammy-winning star? The zany sci-fi comedy from Barry Sonnenfield starred Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as agents for a clandestine organization that knows of alien life forms on earth and serves as an interstellar CIA-esque agency to keep them in line. The movie would drop in the summer of 1997, and to the tune of a $250 million domestic gross, confirmed what now seemed obvious: Will Smith was the new king of the summer blockbusters.


The movie's theme song was an infectious slice of ear candy: Smith rapping over a sample of Patrice Rushen's "Forget-Me-Nots." And the video, which famously featured Smith doing the electric slide with one of the movie's extraterrestrial life forms, would become one of the most popular of the year. "Men In Black" would top the charts in numerous countries, and the movie soundtrack, (which also included songs from Snoop Doggy Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, and an early appearance from Destiny's Child), would sell three million copies in the U.S. on the strength of the hit single.


His hit theme song about fighting aliens was a smash. It also birthed a new record deal for Smith at Columbia, and a chance to kickstart an unexpected musical second act.


The mega success of "Men In Black" as a single set the table for Will Smith to approach his rap career anew: without his longtime partner and without resurrecting the "Fresh Prince" moniker he wanted to distance himself from.


Smith would set to work on his first solo album. He'd been recording songs since 1996, around the time that The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air was wrapping up it's run. The end of that hit show marked, not only the end of Smith as merely the goofy-but-charming sitcom star he'd been since 1990; but also the end of "The Fresh Prince" as Smith's onscreen persona and brand. His new album wouldn't be a Fresh Prince solo album: it would be the debut album of Will Smith.


And, as Will Smith, he was armed with a huge hit single. In the studio with Poke & Tone, Smith put together a collection of infectious and slick tracks. Puff Daddy's No Way Out (and hits by Missy Elliott and Wyclef Jean) had shifted Hip-Hop's landscape into a more lighthearted place; carried by samples of popular tracks from yesteryear. The murders of 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. cast a dark cloud over late 1996 and early 1997, and the rap climate responded by taking a hard turn into sunnier sounds.


"My strength is that I can feel people; I know what the marketplace is ready for," Smith would explain. "I was ready to write my latest album years ago, but not until the tragic loss of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. did I feel it was time. I felt an opening, a desire for change from the darkness of rap music in general. When I heard Tupac, then Biggie, got killed, I said, 'This **** is too much for people to be dying because of it.'”


Everything got very shiny. Videos were awash in color and choreography; and it felt like every hit song had a hook that you'd heard before: whether it was Wyclef reworking the Bee Gee's "Staying Alive," or Puff working Matthew Wilder's "Break My Stride" into "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down." Coming on the heels of two high-profile twin murders, it was a splashy, flashy time—full of big hooks and big money.

And Will Smith inadvertently gave the era it's most notorious anthem.

"Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It" would be the theme song of late 1990s Will Smith, and would come to embody the times in ways that are easy to dismiss. It's the most definitive hit for Will Smith 2.0, and it helped announce the arrival of rap music's most technicolor-splattered and unapologetically "pop" period. In an interview with Michael Joyner in 1997, Smith explained that "jiggy" was a derivative of the slur "jiggaboo," rearranged and refashioned into something more empowering and fun.


The Trackmasters-produced hit flipped Sister Sledge's "He's The Greatest Dancer" and featured ghostwritten raps contributed from Nas, and even Jazzy Jeff contributed scratching to the single. "...Jiggy" shot all the way to No. 1 and stayed there for a whopping three weeks in March 1997.


Somewhat contrary to the album's longstanding image, Big Willie Style boasts a slightly eclectic handful of guest artists: from TLC's Left Eye to jazz rap auteurs and polysyllabic 70s fetishists Camp Lo; not to mention funk legends Cameo. R&B stars Coko, Trey Lorenz and the late Kenny Greene (of Intro fame) provide vocals. It's Coko's uncredited but distinct voice gracing the hook of "Men In Black;" and none other than singer/actress Tichina Arnold provides those soulful vocals on the chorus of the album's lead single "Just Cruisin.'"


Big Willie Style would come to be one of the albums that epitomized the often-mocked "Shiny Suit Era": that period circa 1997 when rap videos were awash in flossiness, rap lyrics seemed preoccupied with superficiality and sampling well-known pop hooks was the fastest way to dominate the radio.

I was ready to write my latest album years ago, but not until the tragic loss of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. did I feel it was time..."

- Will Smith (ROLLING STONE interview, 1998)



He would also see major shifts in his personal life in 1997. His first marriage – in 1992, to Sheree Zampino – ended in divorce after producing Willard Smith Ill, or "Trey," who was five years old when Smith released Big Willie Style. "The other day one of his friends was crying," Will would recall to Rolling Stone in '98. "And Trey said, 'Hey, don’t cry. At least you get to live with your mommy and your daddy.' He wasn’t down. He was sharing a piece of himself, trying to help. That hurt . . . . Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I want to have a bunch of kids. I could have five, but I’d take up to seven. Healthy babies being born are the happiest times you experience in life."

Will's bond with his young son would be immortalized in the heartfelt single "Just The Two Of Us," an interpolation of the Bill Withers hit.

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett would get married about a month after the release of Big Willie Style. Family was becoming a major part of Smith's public persona and dominating his personal priorities. For "Just The Two Of Us" to become one of the album's biggest hits was sweetly appropriate for the young dad and soon-to-be husband.


Jada admitted, even then, that coming into the orbit of a burgeoning superstar was a daunting proposition. She'd carved her own formidable career as actress, having starred, like Will, on a hit NBC sitcom (A Different World), before making the leap to successful movies like Menace II Society, The Nutty Professor and Set It Off.


“When I came to Hollywood, I planned on being the biggest star,” Jada told Rolling Stone in 1998, just as Big Willie Style was nearing the eight million mark in sales. “But when I got with Will, I said, ‘I’m going to have to compromise, because he’s not going to. That’s not even a discussion.’ So I had to ask myself, ‘Is career more important than having a good man who loves you and will provide a happy family?’ I choose Will. So now my work gets forty percent. I can still have a career. I just won’t have the one I planned on. That will not happen. I put my family first.”


Their son Jaden Smith would be born in July of 1998. Two years later, their daughter, Willow, was born in October of 2000. Of course, Will Smith would close out the 1990s with his first stab at the world of suspense thrillers (1998's Enemy Of the State) his first high-profile failure (1999s Wild, Wild West) and another multiplatinum smash of an album (2000s Willennium) en route to becoming one of the biggest stars the world has ever seen. In 1997, he was on the front end of what remains one of the most remarkable runs in entertainment

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