“I want the world to know that I am switching professions and that I am becoming a full-time inventor,” the multi-hyphenate tells Complex. “I’m going to spend all of my time inventing new technologies because I think I’m better at that than making music.”
This might sound jarring considering he just dropped a new album, ERYS. But don’t worry, music is still aligned with his purpose. “I’m still going to make music because I invent new songs,” he assures us. “I invent new ways to make music, but I’m not a musician.”
At just 21 years old (his milestone birthday came just three days ago on July 8), Jaden has already begun to live up to the flashy new title. He is inventing new fashion trends, new systems with a purpose of changing the world, and of course, a new sound. In 2019 alone, he expanded his JUST Water brand and created filtration systems for the people of Flint, Michigan; he dropped ERYS, the antagonistic alter ego to 2017’s SYRE; and he launched the first “I Love You” restaurant on wheels in Los Angeles, which delivered dozens of vegan meals to the homeless.
That’s only the beginning. Jaden speaks about each project with intense calculation and passion. “I’m not going to stop until I’m like Elon Musk,” he declares.
So, allow us to reintroduce you to Jaden (just Jaden, no Smith). Days after the release of his new album, he spoke with Complex about ERYS, Flint, serving the underserved, and changing the world, one invention at a time. The interview, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
What did it take to access darker emotion and aggression on ERYS?
It's kind of naturally inside of me sometimes. That's why I felt the need to make the album, because I have a lot of feelings. For a while, when you feel strongly about something, you can feel a lot of different ways about it. Something very, very specific happened to me and if you listen to the music, you'll know what it is. But something happened to me a while ago and my reaction to that thing for a long time was being sad. I was sad for like four or five years, and then it kind of reverted. I saw that from being sad, nothing really happened in this particular situation. I didn't get any closer to my goal from being sad. So then I started to get really upset, and I started to get really mad, and I started to get really angry about the whole situation. What kind of birthed ERYS is that anger that I had, because I felt like me showing my sadness and being sad wasn't getting me anywhere. And ultimately, being mad is not going to get me anywhere either. The next album, I don't know, just try to be happy on the next album and see what that does.
You mentioned a specific moment in your life, an incident. Would you care to explain?
I would want to see what you would assume.
From my understanding, I thought it was heartbreak.
It is. That's what it is. You can be sad from your heartbreak, and be sad for a while. Then you get mad. You get stuck in it. Some people get over it, but if you don't get over it, you get stuck and you get mad.
Me and my family are continuing to reach out to [ASAP Rocky’s] team to try to figure out how we can get involved and what we can do to.
Did you ever feel like you needed to take a moment to really process that anger and fully let it go?
No, I haven't really let it go. But with this anger, I did need times to really process it. It's all gone now, because it's just not as strong as it was before I made the album. I put it out. People are vibing with it. People understand what's happening. I'm kind of over it. I'm kind of happy that it got out and I feel like I really expressed that side of myself so thoroughly that I don't necessarily have to continue down this path.
Because let me tell you something. I didn't film anything in the ERYS sessions. We didn't allow people to film. Like we have a whole team, Westbrook Media and Westbrook Studios, the management company. We have a whole team of people that can film us and help us and create content for us to post and all that. I specifically didn't have anyone in the studio because I didn't want anyone to see what it was like making this album, because it was crazy. It was really, really insane and it's like I couldn't have any cameras or anything in the studio because it was just wild. I mean, I'm going to just tell you some information I feel like you should know. Like, the end of “K” where I whip out the clippers, have you heard that part?
So, I would always cut my hair inside the booth and that's why I had all those crazy hairstyles for awhile. I mean, I still do. It became a part of the ERYS character where I had the clippers and I shaved my head however, in whichever way I want it to be shaved. Because you get in the studio so much and you're like, "Yo, I need a different outlet. I need to express myself, not musically, to these people to show them how blessed I am and how much I think different from the average person." So I just started shaving. I got inspired by Basquiat. You see Basquiat and you're like, "Oh my gosh,” with his shaved head. You'd be like, "Oh my gosh, this guy must be an artist."
I wanted people to know I was an artist without having to have a conversation with me. So that's why I just shaved my head. Lido, who has the Grammy, is just a genius producer. He decided to take that sound and record it. I was just doing it next to the mic because I wanted my homies to know that I was shaving my head. But Lido was like, “Do it again, shave your head again. James, record it.” And Lido created that amazing beat out of it and that whole concept, and then I just rapped over it. Shout out to Lido and I also want to say shout out to my homie Yuki from New Zealand who helped me produce a good portion of the album as well. Lido, Yuki, and all the MSFTS, and Omarr Rambert and James Rem were just really, really deep into the whole album at various studios all over the world. And we went crazy.
There was another group of people that I wanted to be on the album that I couldn't get, which I was very, very, very, very sad about… That group of people was Migos.
You've talked about how Kid Cudi is a role model, a mentor to you, but now that you’ve finally worked with him, what's next? Do you write another list of goal features?
No, you don't write another list of goal features. That was legendary. Those people pretty much musically raised me: Tyler, Rocky, Cudi. That is the dream. There was another group of people that I wanted to be on the album that I couldn't get, which I was very, very, very, very sad about. But it's OK, because we can save it for something else. And that group of people was Migos. Shout out to the Migos. I love you. I'm sorry about Met Gala that one time.
Let's talk about Tyler’s feature on “Noize.” What was your reaction when he finally sent it over?
I thought it was genius. I knew instantly that it would be the most talked about point on the album. And I love how it goes from the clippers section right into “Noize,” because I feel like those are the two most talked about things on the album besides, obviously, Rocky and Cudi and “Summertime Paris.”
The album's pretty cool. Like you never know how the album is going to be until it comes out. When I got the mastered files back of this album, I was like, “Oh my God.” I didn't want to tell anyone, but I was like, “This album is terrible.” I didn't go into my office when I got the mastered files from the album back because I didn't want anyone to ask me to play it for them. Really close homies would ask me to play them the album and I wouldn't play it for them because I thought it was so bad.
What are your thoughts on ASAP Rocky’s current detainment in Sweden? You said you were boycotting on Twitter.
Yeah, no, I can't do it. We can't do it right now. Definitely not right now. Us as the hip-hop community. I really feel like what's happening right now is not okay, and I'm so, so, so upset. I want to get Rocky out and they keep not allowing people to visit him, unless it's his lawyer, and changing his time when his trial is going to happen, and pushing it back two weeks. It's so sad because I want to be with him right now to celebrate. And beyond all that, that's just my homie and I don't want him to be in jail—especially not somewhere he can't be visited, or where we don't know how he's doing. It's just really sad. Me and my family are continuing to reach out to his team to try to figure out how we can get involved and what we can do to.
On streaming services, you appeared to drop your last name. Was that an intentional move and why if so?
You want to know why? Because Willow's name is “just Willow.” And everything is a character. I feel like I had to separate the things that I do as different characters. So, Jaden Smith is the guy that does the vegan food truck in L.A., and gets that out to the homeless people, and does the Water Box in Flint, and starts Just Water, and sits down with Al Gore. Jaden is just a musical artist.
Jaden and Willow are like a band. Me and Willow are like OutKast except we only ever release individual albums. You remember how OutKast did that one album where it was like two albums?
Oh yeah, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
Yeah. So that's me and Willow. It's like we're not really a band, but we kind of are. It's Jaden and Willow, we have to have the uniform names.
You mentioned the food truck. Why did you feel like it was important to not only serve the homeless and underrepresented communities, but also serve them specifically vegan food?
Few things. First off, all of the ERYS music videos that are slowly going to start to trickle out, or if you've seen ERYS Land on Instagram, all of that was shot in downtown LA. So every day on set, I would see homeless people around, just walking around wondering what we were doing. I really wanted to make really epic videos. So we would find places that were full of all this trash and find a place that homeless people used to live and that are not staying there right now. We would lay down in this place and shoot the videos there in all of this trash to push the energy of this album. Being there and seeing the conditions that these people are living in and what it's like, it made me be like, "You know what? When you're exposed to something and you see it and you can't turn a blind eye to it, then you try to do something about it." I was like, I want to give out free food to the entire community.
Now, the reason that the food was vegan is because there's a thing in America and all over the world called food deserts, and it's an area where there's a five mile radius of no good food. I made it vegan and organic so that we could go into the middle of a food desert and not make it a food desert for a few hours so that we could address food deserts in America and globally. The food was vegan because I also want people to be exposed to vegan and vegetarian food, because it's better for them. I want these people to be healthy and I want them to have a long lasting life. And if I'm over here sitting with my parents eating vegan food… I mean, that's where it all came from: the chef that did the I Love You restaurant, that cooked all that, and organized it, is the family chef. I wanted homeless people to eat the same thing that I eat at a table with my mom, my dad, and my sister.
Because I sit down at my parents' house and I eat with them and I'm like, “This is the best vegan food I have ever had in my entire life.” It makes me want to cry, that's how good it is. I get so sad that other people can't have it. There's no restaurant that serves this food. It's custom food for us. So I was like, “I want to create a family restaurant that just gives away food for free.” I Love You restaurant. I Love You movement. There’s a lot more stuff to come from the I Love You movement and the I Love You restaurant.
What else is there?
More pop-ups. And my goal is to eventually open up a permanent restaurant that gives away food seven days a week. Like, three meals a day, seven days a week, all the time. All free. That's my goal. That'll change the world. Also, the reason that this is so close to home for me is because for The Pursuit of Happyness, I would sleep inside of homeless shelters sometimes just to shoot a scene. But all of the people that were actually in The Pursuit of Happyness, we hired real homeless people. I would be so close with real homeless people and I would see that at a young age, and I wouldn't understand. I'd ask my dad, “What's happening?" He'd just be like, "You know, this is the way that life is sometimes. There's people that are less fortunate than us that have to go through really hard things. That's what this movie's all about." That really impacted me from a young age, too.
What responsibility did you feel personally to go out and create a Water Box for the people of Flint when the government was not doing as much?
What inspired that was we have water engineers at JUST that build water filtration systems for us, but massive ones. We were able to put a water filtration system in the bottom of the Cedar Sinai here in L.A. that saves Cedars-Sinai up to a 100,000 gallons of water a day. This new water filtration system that we put in helps them recycle water and reuse water to cool down the machine. So the engineers that designed the JUST Water filtration systems that we have in Glens Falls, we just thought, “Can we make a super small filtration system?" I had a meeting with the One World Vision Board, and we were talking about filtration systems. I was like, "Yo, let's make a filtration system and let's put it in Africa in places where they have water but it's just not clean. Let's put a filtration system in Africa and let's provide for an entire village. Then let's get that village portable solar panels, and let's keep doing that to different places in Africa and keep going and going."
We were like, "Okay, cool. But we really need to pilot this project before we go all the way to Africa and do this. If we don't know if it's going to fully work." So we said, let's try to find someplace closer to us that has serious water problems and let's pilot the project there. Then we'll eventually take it to Africa. And then we were like, Flint is having serious water problems right now. So let's do a Water Box, a small filtration system, one that's portable. Let's design a new one and put it in Flint.
Do you ever get upset or disheartened at the fact that water, which is basically the most important thing for humans, is hard for people to access? Does that ever blow your mind in a sense?
Everything blows my mind, but yes, it does. That does blow my mind. That does make me very upset and that's why we started it. So by 2020 we're going to have five water filtration systems in place.
Can't that just change the situation significantly for them?
It's not an infrastructure change, but that definitely does tell everyone in Flint that, “Hey, even if people stop donating bottles of water to you, you still have another source within the city. You have five sources within the city.” And one of the Water Boxes that we're building, we're actually teaching Kettering University in Flint how to build it. Now these university kids can be like, “Oh shit. We know how to build it now. If we really raise the money for ourselves, at least we know how to do it.” We just want to teach people how to fish, you know? This isn't the ultimate fix for Flint, but at least the people of Flint know that we're open to the conversation of how to make it better, and that we care about them, and that they have a source of clean water within their own city for the first time in so long. It does 10 gallons every 60 seconds. So if you have a 10 gallon drum of water, if you had two 10 gallon drums of water, you can take all of that back to your house.
But still, the ultimate fix for Flint is for clean water to be running through the pipes. That's what we want. This is just to help make sure that people have enough water to survive. But it's not about surviving; we want to thrive. People will be able to survive off of the five Water Boxes in Flint, but they need clean water running through the pipes. I'm going to continue to be an advocate for Flint. Even after we have five water filtration systems there, I won't be happy until we have 20. I won't be happy until the clean water is running through the pipes. They actually need new pipes. The infrastructure in Flint needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.
What is one thing you want the world to know about Jaden at this point in time, 2019, 21 years old?
I want the world to know that I'm switching professions and that I'm becoming a full-time inventor and that I'm going to spend all of my time inventing new technologies because I think I'm better at that than making music.
So no more music?
No, no. I'm still going to make music because I invent new songs. I invent new songs, I invent new ways to make music. But I'm not a musician. I'm an inventor. And Elon Musk is my idol and I'm not gonna stop until I'm like Elon Musk.