The term G.O.A.T. is thrown around in hip-hop more than dice in a Craps game these days. But in the case of the Fresh Prince himself, Will Smith, the word association couldn’t be more accurate. Of course, it takes both time and consistency to acquire such a huge nod from peers and fans alike. And within an entertainment industry that thrives off fresh faces and talents, the fact that his career has had an upward trajectory for over 40 years is insane. In that timeframe, which likely extends past the lifetime of most people reading this, he’s emerged as one of the most talented entertainers on the planet, and revered hip-hop icons. Deservingly, he should get all his flowers.
Though he raps a lot less often in comparison to his glory days as The Fresh Prince, Will Smith is one of the most important rappers of all time. Back in the mid-1980s, he formed a prophetic duo with fellow Philly native DJ Jazzy Jeff. After dropping their first record "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble” in 1986, they garnered enough attention to land a record deal with Russell Simmons and Jive Records.
Rap has always been susceptible to public opinion for its profanity and aggression, but the group's non-offensive storytelling approach allowed them to make a stance on the commercial level too. As a result, more Ws began to stack up Will and Jeff.
After releasing their debut album, Rock the House, in 1987, and going on a nationwide tour with legends like Run-DMC and Public Enemy, the pair really zeroed in on taking their sound from the neighborhood to the national spotlight. With a refined playbook and their 1988 sophomore album, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, Will and Jeff earned their first platinum plaques, furthermore making them undeniable when it came time to calculating numbers. That of course led to recognition on a higher level on platforms like award shows. Just a year after in 1989, MTV announced Best Rap Video as a category for the Video Music Awards, to which DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince became the inaugural winners for their visual for "Parents Just Don't Understand." That same year, the hit song won them a Grammy for Best Rap Performance, making Will Smith the first rapper to ever take home an award of that prestige.
While they won the coveted golden gramophone at the 1989 Grammy Awards, Will and Jeff took a stand for what they deemed should be fair treatment early on in their career. They boycotted the ceremony and did not accept their award for Best Rap Performance when they learned the new category wouldn't be televised. This set the precedent for hip-hop's polarizing relationship with the Grammys committee. Throughout his career, Will has earned four Grammys: "Parents Just Don't Understand" for Best Rap Performance in 1989, "Summertime" for Best Rap Performance By A Duo or Group in 1992, "Men In Black" for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1989, and "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1999.
By the late 1980s, they became one of the best duos in hip-hop history, racking up awards and accolades and setting the tone for some historic rap combos to follow. They really did continue to prove that two was better than one, capitalizing on the firepower that came with their popularity. Sure, they weren’t the first rap couplet to put in work, but they were the first to see it pay off on a mainstream level.
Approaching the 1990s, Will Smith was on a different type of time. Having lived the lavish lifestyle that comes with being one of the biggest rappers in the world, he failed to pay his taxes, accruing a near $3 million dollar debt. That was probably the best thing that ever happened to him, because it would lead to him landing the leading role on NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1990. The sitcom quickly became an instant hit. As a result, to this day, people mark as one of the best to ever hit the screen and deem the show a classic.
A remake of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is in the works as well. Will is shopping around the new version of the show, along with Morgan Cooper, the man responsible for the new show's YouTube trailer.
Back when The Fresh Prince kicked off, rappers weren’t strangers to television shows. It was in the network’s best interest to draft them for cameos, but no rap stars had crossed over fully and been as successful as Will Smith was with his show. Despite his TV success, he still couldn’t get himself to abandon his rap roots, so he kept dropping music with his OG partner in crime. In 1992, DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince brought home another Grammy for “Summertime,” the lead single off their 1991 fourth album, Homebase. The win further solidified their names into early rap history.
Now with plenty of proof and vogue on a rapping and acting tip, Will Smith could hone in on becoming one of the biggest movie stars in the world. After The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, he scored leading roles in Six Degrees of Separation in 1993, the Martin Lawrence-assisted Bad Boys in 1995 and Independence Day in 1996, the latter of which was the highest-grossing film of all time at the point of its release. With these movies, the mid-1990s marked the origins of the global cinematic superstar we see today. For the rest of the decade, he continued to ping-pong between fields to which directors and casting scouts used to their advantages. Not only could they acquire a great actor, but they didn’t have to outsource to get quality music for the visuals as well. The timing of Hollywood’s acceptance was perfect for the launch of Will’s solo career as an artist.
After landing a lead role in Men in Black in 1997, he geared up to drop his debut album by releasing a single of the same title. By the time his Big Willie Style album finally dropped on Nov. 25, 1997, the rapper-turned-actor had more eyes on him than ever before, still reigning as one of the biggest artists in the world. The project went on to be certified nine-times platinum, and with its third single, "Gettin' Jiggy wit It,” he earned his first No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 song in the country to match another Grammy Award.
His movies roles have earned him countless recognition by awards committees including three MTV Movie Awards, two NAACP Image Awards, one Saturn Award and two Teen Choice Awards. Will has also racked up plenty of nominations, including Best Actor at the Academy Awards and Best Actor at the Golden Globes.
Over the next two decades, Will Smith left no crumbs on the table, eating up every opportunity he had. All of his albums rank in the top 10 of the country in their respective releases and he also bagged another No. 1 song in the U.S. with hits like “Switch.” Simultaneously, he became one of the greatest actors of all time, successfully reinventing his career with movies like the dramatic Seven Pounds (2008), the comical Hitch (2005), the eerie I Am Legend (2007) and everything in between. He did all of this while being a father and raising a family of eclectic musicians in Willow and Jaden Smith, alongside his thespian wife Jada Pinkett, who has classics of her own.
Going into the social media age of the 2010s, likely emphasized by his children, Will stepped into another world and emerged as a viral media personality on both Instagram and YouTube. He found freedom in recording bucket list moments in which he could finally be his raw, unfiltered self. Inevitably, fans flocked to his content and millions of followers and subscribers piled in to be entertained, as they always have. He currently sits at over 49 million Instagram followers and 8.7 million YouTube subscribers, who tune in to see his hilarious and creatively unique visuals that include him doing everything from skydiving to bending a spoon with his mind.
There is no resume quite like that of Will Smith. Whether he’s on the mic, on the big screen, or on your timeline, the 51-year-old entertainment icon (who turns 52 on Sept. 25) has been G.O.A.T.-ed, putting on MVP-level performances for decades after decades, no matter the playing field. Keep it real, no one has been able to bounce between industries this seamlessly or successfully. There will always be debates about which rapper is the Greatest of All Time, but few artists can master more than one industry, to which Will has done. He is the epitome of limitless execution, making himself seem invincible in both the hip-hop and entertainment world. Setting the purest example of endless possibility and the payoff that hard work rewards, it’s always the right time to salute Will Smith. If there's anyone that deserves to be called a G.O.A.T., it should very well be him.
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