If Will Smith were Tom Hanks then Born to Reign would be his Philadelphia. Well, not exactly—it’s more like his Forrest Gump—but it’s still a sizeable leap from “Gettin’ Jiggy with It.” The album’s epic lead single, “Black Suits Coming (Nod Ya Head),” the theme to this summer’s Men in Black II, trades in synthesizers for live guitars, percussion and strings. The rest of the album follows, um, “suit,” incorporating organic instrumentation (horns, mini-choirs) into Smith’s signature pop-rap style. While his rhyming skills have rarely been called into question, his pop leanings have alienated hip-hop purists; but what Smith lacks in street-cred, he more than makes up for in charisma. Tracks like “How Da Beat Goes” and “Act Like You Know” (with its chunky beats and plucky strings packed tight against Smith’s slick rhymes) are potential hits-in-waiting, while “Block Party” evokes Smith’s good ol’ days with Jazzy Jeff (though it’s no “Summertime,” it certainly echoes that song’s balmy summer vibe). But Smith’s attempts at a fresh, grown-up sound don’t always work; lyrically, he’s still the anti-Eminem, dishing out parent-approved content (save for a few mentions of infidelity and the questionable “I’m about to bust and it’s gonna be glorious” on the spicy “I Can’t Stop”). Protégé Tra-Knox warbles his way through almost every track on the album—the only thing worse would be if Sisqo was here. Still, Born to Reign packs a bit more muscle than Smith’s previous solo efforts (check out the reggae swagger of “I Gotta Go Home”), and though Oscar might be just out of reach, Smith knows she’s just “a girl on the side.”
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