Everyone has a party trick. Some people can curl their tongues or flip their eyelids inside out or bend their thumbs out of joint. Me — I can rap all of Will Smith's Willennium. Not the song, I should specify (that’s actually called “Will 2K”), but the 33-minute album, including guest appearances, Will's intermittent grunts, and, on a good day, the various scratches DJ Jazzy Jeff throws out. It's both a blessing — I once performed 10 minutes of it to my wife a week before we started dating — and a curse, particularly so when you work from home alone.
I'll involuntarily blurt passages from one of the 10 songs on the album just to break the silence in my house, a kind of mental defect that I'm sure makes me sound strange to my neighbors and any postal service workers who happen to be passing by. But this accidental noisemaking has also made me realize something: Will Smith’s technology references have dated terribly. I still love Big Will’s brand of inoffensive hip-hop, but more so than any other artist I can think of, his rhymes make the inexorable passing of time painfully obvious, dropping references to resolutely ‘90s tech in a way that drags me out of 2017 and back 20 years.
And now, using my encyclopedic knowledge of Will Smith's studio albums and a fundamental appreciation for his oeuvre, I'm here to convince you of my argument. Please listen along for the full effect.
"Big Will with the Y2K" — from "I'm comin'" (Willennium)
The album starts with Smith acting as his own hype man, a brave move that falls on its face in 2017 thanks to his immediate mention of “Y2K,” a term now used primarily as a punchline to jokes about the olden days. It’s the lyrical equivalent of those people who have firstname.lastname@example.org as their email address, immediately making both their age and their lack of forethought very obvious.
Fortunately for Will, he quickly manages to right the ship with the next line, which goes, “Ain’t the second coming of Christ / it’s the first coming of me” — an ambiguously sexual bar that suggests Mr. Smith can trigger volcanic eruptions by his sheer existence. A strong statement.
“What’s gonna happen / don’t nobody know / we’ll see when the clock gets to 12:00.” — from “Will 2K” (Willennium)
The Millennium Bug didn’t kill us all
Nothing happens, Will, we can tell you that now. Planes don’t fall from the sky, nuclear reactors don’t explode, and people who went into their bunkers a few hours earlier to await armageddon come sheepishly back out and start trying to offload their stockpiled canned food. The clocks in question ticked over to 12:01 on the 1st of January, 2000, and seem likely to continue to tick until 2038, when a whole new computer clock-related problem means we’re definitely doomed. I hope you’ve got a new album in the works in time for that?
“Rappers refer to me as soft — yeah, more like, Microsoft.” — from “Freakin’ It” (Willennium)
This worked as a fine hater clapback at a time when Windows 98 was an exotic new update to the already futuristic Windows 95, but it has lost some of its power over the years as Microsoft, in turn, lost its unassailable position in the tech world. For the remaster, Will, can I offer “Rappers refer to me as crap — yeah, more like, App(le)” as a suggestion, or would that break your “no swearing” rule?
“Will Gates with the rap game / quintessential megalomaniac / what’s my rap name?” — from “Freakin’ It” (Willennium)
While still a markedly moneyed figure, Bill Gates has proven to be one of the few billionaires that could argue he’s not a megalomaniac. Certainly, his charity work, his desire to eradicate lethal diseases, and his promise to donate his money rather than hand it to his kids on his deathbed make him a more palatable figure than peers who bankroll $10 million court cases because they want revenge on people who don’t do exactly what they want.
"I rock telephones with the TV screens / so I can have real phone sex / know what I mean?" — from “Da Butta,” feat. Lil’ Kim (Willennium)
This anachronistic line isn’t Will’s fault directly, but it serves to show how his gravitational pull even serves to make other rappers’ tech references outdated. Here Kim is using “telephones with the TV screens” to insinuate her fabulous wealth — or at the very least, her prioritization of masturbatory aids in her spending budget — but in 2017, even the cheapest smartphones offer some form of video chat. Perhaps a more modern remix would see Kim investing in a realistic sex doll to cater to her needs, or at least a confirmation that she had added credit to her Skype account so she could call a variety of numbers.
But it’s not just Willennium that houses Will’s particular penchant for technological references that have dated terribly. His previous album — 1997’s Big Willie Style — has two of the most egregious examples in the same song.
“It's a full-time job to be a good dad / you got so much more stuff than I had / I gotta study just to keep with the changin’ times / 101 Dalmatians on your CD-ROM.” — from “Just The Two of Us” (Big Willie Style)
This is the triple threat: a line containing mention of Will’s own youth, a reference to CD-ROM technology — not exactly outlandish in 1997 — and a nod to 101 Dalmatians, originally turned into a Disney film in 1961. Presumably Will is referencing the 1996 live-action remake of the animated classic, but even then, what’s he talking about?
The movie didn’t arrive on DVD until 2000, with the VHS copy becoming available in 1997. Does he mean a tie-in game? Was Will trying to jam a video cassette into his PC? Has he literally painted an image of 101 spotted dogs onto the side of his computer’s case? The answer is lost to the mists of time.
“See me / I’m tryin’ to pretend I know / on my PC where that CD go.” — from “Just The Two of Us” (Big Willie Style)
I’m stepping away from Willennium and breaking out this line because it reminds me so strongly of a very specific set of visual jokes from the early 2000s where the less technologically savvy — parents, teachers, other old-timers — erroneously believed a PC’s CD drive was a convenient cup holder. It was a joke with years of mileage, and years of images, stories, and videos showing the ignorant placing beverages on the plastic tray that burst expectantly from their beige box.
Now the chance is gone. Not only are our parents totally wise to the concept of disc drives, but in 2017, the hardware is largely unnecessary on a modern PC. I built my last PC in 2014 and only realized two months ago when I tried to install an ancient game that I neglected to include a CD drive. Now we’ve just got USB sticks and direct downloads. Where’s the comedy in that? You can’t put a cup on a .zip file.
Big Will has some good company in dropping terrible tech references (remember Kelly Rowland texting Nelly using Excel), but after my own extensive research, I think I have effectively demonstrated that he stands head and shoulders above his peers.
Perhaps it was his commitment to clean rap that meant that, while other artists were free to hurl out curse words with abandon, Mr. Smith was stuck making extremely specific references to mid-‘90s technology. Or perhaps he’s just always been a total dad. Either way, in our horrible future of “flying cars” and grinding poverty, why not put Willennium on and let yourself be transported back to the halcyon days of the late 1990s.