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POP MUSIC | POP EYE

Is This Prince Still Fresh Enough?

November 03, 1996|Steve Hochman

Will Smith kicked alien butt in "Independence Day." But by building a mega-hot movie career, has the rapper-turned-actor become an alien in the world of hip-hop?

In his rap guise as the Fresh Prince, Smith and his musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff are about to test that question, with plans just set for a new album expected to be released by Jive Records in February. But while such such figures as Ice Cube, LL Cool J and the late Tupac Shakur have balanced rap credibility with movie and TV careers, there are many questions about Smith's status in hip-hop.

On one hand, the timing couldn't be better: Smith became a household name with his just-concluded six-year stint in the NBC sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and with lauded roles in the films "Six Degrees of Separation" and "Bad Boys" before shooting into the movie stratosphere with "Independence Day," this year's biggest blockbuster.

During that time, the rap career has taken a back seat. During the NBC stint, only two DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince albums were released. The second, 1993's "Code Red," sold just 300,000 copies in the U.S., according to SoundScan figures.

That's a big drop-off from the late '80s, when the duo was one of the most visible and renowned acts in pop, with Smith's wit and video presence and Jeff Townes' turn-table prowess earning the duo a series of hit singles and albums--along with the first-ever rap Grammy Award in 1988.

Since the last album, Smith has shown little interest in rap, not just because he was busy with bigger things, but because he felt that he and the rest of the hip-hop world were living on different planets. Just six months ago he told The Times he was perplexed by gangsta rap's "ignorance" and violence.

"Somewhere along the line it became cool to be a killer," he said of the genre's popularity. "How can that be cool?"

But whatever his misgivings, Smith apparently is ready to re-enter the hip-hop world.

"He's been writing and producing a lot [of songs] and is really looking forward to making a record," says Smith's co-manager James Lassiter. (Smith was taking time off and unavailable for comment.)

Being a big movie star, Lassiter says, has not diminished his client's love of music.

"The issue is more a matter of time," he says, noting that Smith and Townes hope to finish the album before the former starts on an as-yet-undetermined movie project, probably in February. "His attitude toward recording hasn't been affected by his movie status."

Maybe, though, it's been affected by a lawsuit filed by Jive charging that the failure to actively pursue recording constitutes a breach of a contract under which the duo still owes the company two new albums and a "best of" collection.

Lassiter insists that the planned return to the studio was not stimulated by the suit, but acknowledges that it is one of the "right steps that have been taken" toward an out-of-court settlement.

Opinions among hip-hop observers are split on the new album's prospects.

Darryl James, editor-in-chief of the Santa Monica-based journal Rap Sheet, believes that Smith's screen star status is a plus.

"The fact that he is much more of a public personality than for the last album will certainly help," he says. "That plus a strong album will equal very successful sales."

But Vibe magazine associate editor Sacha Jenkins isn't so sure. "Maybe with the success of 'Independence Day' there are some people in Middle America who shop at Kmart who might check out a new album," he says.

"But in the culture where they were once real competitors, no one is anticipating this on that level--unless they're die-hard fans or are from Philadelphia and went to high school with them. Smith's a talented guy and seems genuinely nice and people appreciate that. But nice guys don't last long in hip-hop."

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