Harry Todd
Contributing Writer

Hip-hop is all about mythmaking, developing a personal narrative, one that simultaneously humanizes the rapper and elevates them above the listeners. On “Syre,” Jaden Smith’s debut album, Smith tries to narrativize himself among who he sees as the best musicians of all time – the Kendrick Lamars and Jimi Hendrixs of the world. It’s a noble goal, and one that most young rappers confront on their debut album.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Smith does not live up to the goal that he sets himself; even more disappointing, though, is the young rapper’s failure to craft a singular voice. Instead, “Syre” sounds like a conglomeration of other musicians’ styles, sometimes to the point of near-plagiarism (“Batman” is the most compelling example; I’m shocked he hasn’t been sued for infringing on Drake and Future’s “Jumpman”). “Syre” is the type of album that makes me want to recommend other, better music.

Let’s start with pure sonics. Produced in large part by Norwegian star Lido, “Syre” certainly wants to feel massive. The four-song suite that opens the album, “B-L-U-E,” is arguably the album’s biggest, most inspired run of songs, with orchestration that varies throughout, running the gambit from club-lite dance music to guitar solos meant to scathe. It’s interesting, sonically, but it is nowhere near the best work that Lido can offer; one can’t help but wonder if Jaden heard Lido’s stellar reworking of “The Life of Pablo” — called “The Life of Peder” — and asked him to do just that, but for a discounted price. Other songs, with their light, indie-rock instrumentation, just made me wish I was listening to Kevin Abstract’s “American Boyfriend.” The intention just isn’t defined enough; does Jaden want the listener to dance or to croon along with him? He needs to make up his mind.

Even worse, the emotions of the production just never gel with Jaden’s bars. Lyrically, the album ranges from competent to cringy. There are forced pop cultural references everywhere, but none feel current enough to contextualize Jaden’s work within even contemporary mediocrity. An especially bad example: “I mean, ah, I need someone to renounce with, whoa / Ice Bucket Challenge in the fountain, whoa.” Here, Jaden establishes himself as a socially conscious rapper that… saves water by dropping the ice in the fountain? Not a particularly compelling portrait. If you want another album that does modern political commentary better, look to the work of Open Mike Eagle, whose recently released album “Brick Body Kids Still Daydream” offers much more poignant, nuanced insights into the current political climate.

Jaden’s just not ready to be his own artist. It’s evident in the opportunistic production that seeks to capitalize on the rise of trap-hop. It’s evident in his vocal inflection, which too often convinced me I was listening to rising Chicago star Saba. And it’s certainly evident in the overall myth that Jaden wants to develop — the myth of Syre, the boy who chased the sun. Throughout “Syre,” Jaden oscillates between a hollow sadness over a lost love and calling himself an icon. Neither sentiment rings true.