Rap got away from the essence. The essence of rap was always about partying and having fun," explained actor/rapper Will Smith in a recent Entertainment Weekly article.Hmmm. Where was Smith when Grandmaster Flash released "The Message," Eric B. and Rakim came out with "I Know You Got Soul," or Public Enemy dropped Fear of a Black Planet?Those records are just some of rap's history that Smith is either dissing or missing; there are other more truly important hip-hop releases that reflect the complete essence of the music and the culture. Smith's ears are big enough that he really shouldn't have missed some of the more significant music of the genre he's anointed himself to save.The article is just one in a spate of statements Smith has made in print and on television to support his stiff of a new album, Big Willie Style. Wherever you turn, Smith is trying to reduce the whole of hip-hop culture down to the niche that he used to inhabit.When Smith first came out of Philadelphia in 1986 with "Girls Ain't Nothin' But Trouble," he had already established himself as the "nice guy rapper." At that time, he was called the Fresh Prince and paired with creative DJ/producer Jazzy Jeff. The duo followed up with the 1988 Grammy Award-winning pop hit "Parents Just Don't Understand."The genial Smith mugged his way through the resolutely corny "Parents" video, helping ease hip-hop onto MTV's mainstream airwaves. The video was ultimately recycled into the opening credit sequence of Smith's sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel Air.Smith's work has always been pop confection in designer hip-hop clothing. Maybe years from now there'll be a "nice" hip-hop format roughly analogous to soft rock for which we can blame Will Smith.The fact is, music evolves so quickly that people who do it full time can sound dated and out of touch if they stay away too long. The Fresh Prince was already just a minor hip-hop footnote when Smith released his last record, 1993's Code Red. The album's title was aptly, though unintentionally, ironic. Smith's hip-hop career was already on life support and in need of resuscitation, as demonstrated by the universal indifference and general dismissal that greeted Code Red.The new record, Big Willie Style, debuted at No. 31 on the Billboard Charts for overall albums. Considering the massive hype Sony put behind the record and Smith's subsequent magazine and television coverage, No. 31 is more of a blank than a bullet. The record has legs of lead, and any hope Smith might have of commercial affirmation rests in having a crossover single hit on the pop charts because the hip-hop community has already blown him off.Smith's several successes show he is a significant draw for those who like their entertainment light and uncomplicated. Sure, he's appeared in the highest-grossing films of the past two years, but it could be argued that Will Smith had relatively little to do with the success of such events as Independence Day and Men In Black. Regardless, Smith has judiciously capitalized on it, and his film career is currently booming.But Smith is more than slightly presumptuous when he says, "Rap's gone through a kind of dark ages. With the loss of Biggie [Smalls] and Tupac [Shakur], the rap industry is ready for a change. I'm feeling good to be part of the renaissance."Smith is both late and wrong. Maybe just wrong.Rap/hip-hop is constantly changing and evolving, as is all contemporary music. The forms respond to the changes in our lives. Rap is not experiencing a rebirth because of the deaths of two its bigger stars. Rather, what has happened is facets of the industry have tried to examine why a climate existed that contributed to those deaths, while other artists such as Sean "Puffy" Combs have simply leaped into the void.Will Smith can't even approach either the magnetism or influence Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur had while they were alive. Shakur has proved to be a more electric screen presence as well. The cottage industry of martyrdom that has grown around Biggie and Tupac, in the tragedies of their respective deaths, makes Will Smith conspicuously meaningless. Smith can't even escape the shadows of their entourages, much less the figures themselves.Mixxula-a Sacramento-based music consultant and hip-hop authority who tracks local hip-hop record sales trends and programs "The Mix" show on Friday and Saturday nights for 103.5 KBMB-laughs disgustedly at Smith's notion of himself."The hip-hop community is not too happy with him right now," says Mixxula. "If he's gonna come out with a rap record, he needs [to] come out as the Fresh Prince. What's this 'Will Smith' stuff?""If he didn't want to be part of the hip-hop community, if he wasn't enjoying rap and what it has to offer, for whatever reason, who is he to say he's gonna come save it?" he continues.Mixxula isn't even sure gangsta rap has brought hip-hop down."Hip-hop and rap are today's pop music. Every year since rap came on the scene-whether it's "Rapper's Delight" or Run-DMC, whenever you want to say it started commercially-it has sold more every year. It's increased. We've never had a bad hip-hop year.""I do retail runs with my street promotions team where we go to different stores and check the progress of projects we're working on. And every store I go to, whether it's in South Sacramento, downtown, Roseville, Folsom or wherever, the top 25 is dominated by hip-hop artists."Mixxula takes his analysis to the bottom line: "We don't need Will Smith to dance and save us. We're making a lot of money. I think we're all doing just fine.""I'm not taking anything away from him because he did a lot for hip-hop. He brought it to another level. He opened a lot more ears and gave it a different kind of visibility and consciousness. He's made it accessible to other markets through his TV show and film stuff."Accessibility, however, shouldn't be confused with charisma, intelligence or talent."Lyric for lyric, ain't a lot of people that can touch me," Smith recently proclaimed in the pages of rap music magazine The Source.In reality, there aren't many rappers who would want to touch the banality that passes for lyrics on Big Willie Style. Rappers such as Salt N' Pepa have more fun and do it with more style. Wu-Tang has an outrageous rawness Smith wouldn't dare to approximate. Finally, artists such as Wyclef Jean of the Fugees have more talent and worthwhile ideas.Jean's solo record, The Carnival, is easily one of hip-hop's albums of the year; Smith's Big Willie Style is simply lame in comparison. The Carnival is full of topical social references and cultural observations and the music is mostly original."Gunpowder" is an acoustic guitar ballad with a stark poetry that echoes the legacy of Bob Marley, while "Sang Fezi" is a French rap played out over acoustic guitar lines with organ accents in the background and Hill singing in English. Another ballad, "Yele," is sung in French and performed with just acoustic guitar, percussion and vocals.In contrast, Smith's Big Willie Style has neither beats nor rhymes that interest or excite. His grunting on "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" is laughable, "Miami" wanders aimlessly, describing his second home, and "Just Cruisin'" is an endless road trip to nowhere special.The Carnival could also be described as a pop record that draws from all the sources of popular music, from hip-hop to folk, with a bit of reggae as well. It reflects how the inspirations for hip-hop are becoming more diverse and eclectic. In turn, the best hip-hop is influencing the rest of the music world as well.At one point on The Carnival, Wyclef announces "If your record ain't selling, you lack creativity. What you want me to say?"It's hard to imagine Big Willie's response.