Seven years before Jaden Smith was born, his father made a song called “Summertime.” It’s a classic, but Jaden, who grew up in sunny California, didn’t fully grasp the reason why until recently. “People always make such a big deal about summer – Drake’s ‘Summer Sixteen,’ or my dad’s song – and I was like, ‘So what?'” says the 20-year-old rapper, actor and fashion rebel.
As he’s seen more of the world, his perspective on the seasons has shifted. “In Toronto, it’s very cold, you know what I’m saying?” Smith continues. “This is the first year that I really understand what summer is, globally, and why it’s so cool. I’m going to do exactly what I want, and it’s going to be fun.”
Step one: his role in Skate Kitchen, a vérité-style indie drama about a circle of young women skaters in New York, headed to theaters on August 10th. Smith’s performance as Devon, the film’s ambivalent love interest, is appealingly low-key, channeling both his moderate half-pipe skills (“I can kick-flip, I can ollie some stairs – pretty simple shit”) and his unconventional philosophy of life. “The whole culture of skating is rebellious to the system,” he says. “You’re like, ‘I’m not gonna walk, I’m not gonna run, I’m not gonna drive. I’m gonna skate’ – which is closer to flying.”
Skate Kitchen is his first major feature role since 2013, and it adds a new note to his range after his comedic turn last year in Netflix’s animated social satire Neo Yokio. Smith describes working on set with director Crystal Moselle and her cast of mostly untrained teen actors as a moment of self-actualization: “A lot of the movies that I do are very far away from who I am. This is the closest film to me – my personality, even what I choose to wear.”
Smith is wandering in the woods near L.A. when he calls, taking a break from the studio where he’s finishing Syre: The Electric Album, a guitar-centric rework of his 2017 LP, Syre. He cites Jimi Hendrix and Sgt. Pepper as key influences on the new album: “It’s a modern version of psychedelic rock for Internet babies.” He’s also working on a “strict, hard rap album” called Erys, and taking meetings on plastics recycling for JUST Water, the environmentally-minded company he founded with his dad.
While a good portion of his fame is rooted in his fantastically weird Twitter persona – “How Can Mirrors Be Real If Our Eyes Aren’t Real,” he wrote in 2013 – Smith has mixed feelings about other social media platforms, lately going so far as to delete Instagram from his phone. “Everybody is being judged about what they look like,” he says. “I stay out of it, man. I’m literally in the forest right now, surrounded by trees.”
He continues on this theme for a while more: “If you ever look at the people that invented Instagram and Facebook, they talk about how they don’t personally use it. It’s a pleasure feedback loop that they built, so you always want to post a picture and see how many likes it gets and then post the next one and get more. It’s proven science.” The one exception he makes in this critique is for his father’s Instagram account: “He’s genius, and he’s still holding himself back. People are going to have to really step it up just to stay in the game.”
A few days after we speak, he releases Syre: The Electric Album as a series of Instagram posts. Poetic contradictions abound in Smith’s world. Take the way he feels about leaving his teens behind, as he did on July 8th, his 20th birthday and the day of the album’s release. “Every time I drop an album, I get a little bit younger,” Smith says. “I don’t want to feel like I’m 20 and shit! That makes me feel like I have to wear suits, and I don’t want to do that. So I’m going to mentally tell myself that I’m still 19.”
On another level, he knows his age is just another category to float above and beyond. “I’m always going to act how I want to act,” Smith says. “And some people are always going to think that I’m crazy.”