Bizarre tweets have shaped our perception of Jaden Smith for many years, but following the late 2017 release of his debut studio album, SYRE, many hip-hop fans—myself included—were forced to reassess our preconceived position. Sure, the album has its flaws—it’s too long, sometimes Jaden’s rapping doesn't match the production—but it's both ambitious and, at times, a thrilling experience.
One of the standout tracks on the album is ”Icon,” a record that boasts one of SYRE’s hardest beats, Jaden’s catchiest lyrics, and which forced me to ask myself the following question: Is Jaden Smith actually an icon?
The short answer, despite what he says to the contrary, is no. It takes a lot of years, and a lot of hard work for a musician to achieve iconic status. Michael Jackson did it. Prince did it. Beyoncé has done it. So has Kanye.
Jaden Smith is not there yet—but the man clearly thinks he is, and so we owe it to him to hear him out.
What has Jaden done that leads him to believe he's icon? For starters, according to "Icon" lyrics, creating his own record label. While a lot of iconic musicians have started their own labels—Kanye has G.O.O.D., JAY-Z has Roc Nation, Prince had Paisley Park—founding a record label alone does not make you an icon. No one’s making monuments for, say, Columbia Records founder Edward D. Easton.
As for the rest of the list, Jaden mentions:
- Leaving his Porsche at home while on tour.
- Being on the cusp of making an independent movie.
- Having the word “icon” tattooed on his torso (fact check: he doesn’t).
- Wearing gold grills and dancing like Michael Jackson.
Granted, dancing like Michael Jackson is, in part, what made the actual Michael Jackson an icon, but other than that, none of these things have ever contributed to anyone reaching iconic status.
Perhaps to find the true origins of Jaden’s perceived iconicism, we have to go Behind The Lyrics™. In an interview with Genius following the release of SYRE, Jaden said, “There are some things I have done that are very, very iconic. Like wearing a skirt at Louis Vuitton. Or like crying in my music videos. So I feel like that’s iconic because no one does those things, you know?”
It’s true, these moments could be described as iconic, and I would even place wearing a white Batman costume to Kim and Kanye’s wedding alongside them, but while they were visually striking and could have potentially impacted the fashion world—black-tie meets superhero will be the dress code for my wedding, at least—they don’t quite make Jaden himself an icon. Not yet.
Still speaking to Genius, Jaden went on to say, “I think what it means to be an icon is being able to take extreme amounts of hate. And extreme amounts of people saying they don’t fuck with you. The only reason they receive that hate is because they do things other people don’t do.”
Before watching the interview, I never considered the amount of "hate" someone receives as being their meal ticket to becoming deemed an icon. I always believed being an icon was something that had very little to do with how different someone is and everything to do with fame, impact and his or her enduring legacy.
After some serious thought, though, Jaden's hot take actually makes sense. Let’s look at Michael Jackson (icon, obviously). Jackson was the world's preeminent entertainer. He danced like nobody had danced before, even if he didn’t wear gold grills. He completely transformed the art of the music video. Then he started pushing the boundaries of normality in areas outside of his artistry—he drastically altered his appearance, built his own amusement park in his backyard, and generated, at the time, an unparalleled level of hate for allegedly reprehensible behavior.
From this perspective, it makes sense to view “Icon” through the lens of a young artist who is becoming an icon. He starts to get magazine covers. He starts winning awards. He starts to develop a trademark style. And this path is closer to Jaden’s actual journey. Despite his famous father—while unquestionably an icon, Will Smith has been out of the music game for decades; he prefers to focus on Instagram now—the start of Jaden's musical career has been a slow burn.
There are some exceptions, but generally, to make the leap and become an icon, a musician must check all of the following boxes:
- Release stone-cold classic music that produces millions in sales.
- Develop a unique sound and/or style that has a profound cultural impact.
- Create iconic “moments” that go down in cultural history. (These can be related or unrelated to an icon’s actual work.)
- Become one of the most famous musicians in the world, or at least in one genre.
- Sustain this level of success for at least five years.
SYRE is a respectable album, but would you put it in the same conversation as iconic debuts from Nas (Illmatic) or Kanye West (The College Dropout)? As for the material itself, Jaden’s current sound is too beholden to his own influences, a fact he acknowledged in an interview with Complex. He’s currently famous, but he’s not iconic famous. And yes, there's a difference. A musician can become iconic without being one of the most popular musicians in the world. It’s what Young Thug refers to as a “slept-on legend.” But as Yoh Phillips pointed out, in order to reach this status, there must be a period of time when your songs are some of the most listened-to on the planet—music that no one can escape. SYRE recently broke 100 million streams on Spotify, but it's hardly an inescapable album.
It's clear Jaden is willing to put in the work to reach this point. He could have had SYRE ready much earlier, but he spent three years just making “BLUE.” He honed his chops on features for everyone from Rich The Kid (not an icon) to Childish Gambino (another potential future icon). He’s built up genuine credibility in the fashion arena. Though turning heads in fashion is not enough to become an icon musically, it can certainly help. Madonna (icon) proved this.
So where does Jaden Smith go from here? Given his debut album has proven him musically adept, he needs to craft some bona fide hits, develop his own musical style, and continue to generate visually-striking moments. But if being an icon is about being different, as Jaden seems to believe, maybe he doesn’t even need to.
“I’m about to do it way different,” he raps near the beginning and the end of “Icon.” I can’t wait to see what happens when he does.