Soundstorm review: Will Smith reunites with DJ Jazzy Jeff at Saudi festival

Duo remind fans of their pedigree in hip-hop's jubilee year

Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff played hits such as Miami, Brand New Funk and Summertime. Photo: MDL Beast
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Nostalgia was the theme of the second day of Soundstorm, with veteran artists reminding us of their vitality on stage.

The biggest throwback on Friday was a triumphant set by Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff.

With all that Hollywood stardust surrounding Smith, it’s easy to forget the important role he played as part of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince.

The group received the first Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance in 1989 for Parents Just Don't Understand and were the first hip-hop act to release a double album, 1988's He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper.

All of that history was seemingly lost in the aftermath of the Oscars slap last year.

Not only has Smith’s Hollywood career been put on ice, but the duo haven't taken part in any of the major US hip-hop concerts and festivals celebrating the genre’s jubilee.

While it's unclear whether the omissions were related to the Oscars incident, Smith has also not been readily available to hit the stage in the last two decades.

His stellar acting career rendered the group a hip-hop unicorn with increasingly rare performances.

In addition to an appearance at last year’s Grammys, the duo's last five official performances span five years, excluding a surprise 2014 New Year’s Eve gig in Dubai.

Whether Smith’s decision to perform in Riyadh is because he was already in the kingdom as a guest of the Red Sea International Film Festival or because he is in between jobs, it doesn’t matter.

Judging by the intensity and sheer joy he felt on stage, it seemed like he needed that moment more than us.

Younger audience members, familiar with his work on the big screen, would have revelled in seeing the Hollywood superstar performing in Soundstorm.

Meanwhile, older hip-hop heads were given a reminder of the duo’s pedigree with Jeff’s underrated production and turntable skills and Smith’s undeniable showmanship.

Over Jeff’s rattling production and shuddering basslines, Smith's was focused through the 40-minute set.

While his voice would crack occasionally, perhaps due to the lack of stage time over the years, he sounded authoritative when delivering narrative-spun raps about discovering new music at a party (Brand New Funk), holidaying in his favourite city (Miami) and the aching memories of past family occasions (Summertime).

A lovely moment arrived towards the middle of the show when Smith sat on a chair and reminisced about being a father in the 1998 Grammy-winning track Just the Two of Us, before bringing his son Jaden on stage as they launched into his club anthem Icon.

More than performing in front of 50,000 people with his son, there was something deeper and rather heartwarming about Smith’s smile and genuine affection for the crowd at the end of the set.

With Hollywood putting him on the back burner for the time being, Smith has been seemingly travelling the world for public appearances and family holidays.

While this is all well and good, this year's Soundstorm proves he needs to be back on the road performing again and rediscovering some of that purity of purpose that propelled him to stardom.

Classic Arabic hits with a new twist

Other vintage artists reminding us of their onstage mojo were Hakim and Hamid Al Shaeri.

Both Egyptian artists are featured in what is becoming a Soundstorm staple, where several Arab artists are paired with a DJ – in this case Aly Fathalla – to perform remixes of their classic hits from the 1990s on the main stage.

Hakim’s tenor was shown off in fine form in the new version of Ouda, while Al Shaeri made light work of the breezy new version of El Salam Alaikum.

MDL Beast Records confirmed to The National that the latest version of both tracks, remixed by Fathalla, will be released soon.

“I am really looking forward to it,” Al Shaeri said after the set. “I have played many stages and to be one that is truly global and one of this scale is something special.

"For me personally it’s a thrill but it’s also important to recognise some of the seasoned artists who did put the work in.

"I am happy to share some of my music with a new generation of people from around the world. The remix is going to sound great once it’s out.”

Soundstorm runs in Riyadh until Sunday

Updated: December 16, 2023, 12:35 PM