Cynicism is a growing phenomenon in music. True love songs are hard to come by these days. Deriving its name from Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Yellow Diamonds is a series of lyric breakdowns in which VIBE Senior Music Editor Austin Williams celebrates songs that sound like love found in a hopeless mainstream.
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Will Smith said through tears during his Best Actor acceptance speech at the 94th Academy Awards, less than an hour after slapping Chris Rock for mocking his wife’s battle with alopecia.
At that moment, something felt uncomfortable about Smith contorting the image of Richard Williams, the man he won his first Oscar for portraying, to justify his violent outburst. By King Richard’s account, Williams was a man who preached discipline, intelligence, and self-control; all things Smith’s impulsivity defied the second he stepped onstage to approach Rock. But in considering which love song to cover in today’s edition of Yellow Diamonds, I remembered “Just The Two Of Us,” Smith’s 1997 ode to fatherhood. Suddenly, the parallel between the actor and Williams that was obscured on Sunday by narcissism became clear in the context of duty and protection.
A rework of Bill Withers’ song of the same name, “Just the Two of Us” subverts the romantic love described in the original and instead depicts the love Smith as a father has for his eldest son. Twenty-five years after the song’s release and less than a week removed from the 53-year-old’s misty-eyed sermon, certain lyrics from “Just The Two Of Us” now hold a different weight, particularly the ones in which he vows to protect his boy from harm.
In his Oscars speech, Smith went on to explain his life’s work as a protector. “Making this film, I got to protect Aunjanue Ellis,” he said of the actress who played Richard Williams’ wife, Oracene Price. “I got to protect Saniyya [Sidney] and Demi [Singleton], the two actresses that played Venus and Serena [Williams]. I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people.”
Of course, there are issues one could take with this part of Smith’s statement. In the six minutes he spoke with his trophy in hand, he never explained how appearing in a movie with other actors constitutes protection. He also barely mentioned his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who in the past has dismissed at least one of his grand gestures of love as a “disgusting display of ego,” as reported by GQ and Wesley Lowery.
But in evoking the image of his onscreen daughters and framing protection as something he’s not only been called to do in moments like Sunday night but throughout his entire life, Smith’s imperfect speech felt like the closing of a full circle that began a quarter-century ago with a song dedicated to his first-born son. That record, like his acceptance speech and even the passages in his book recounting his regret over not protecting his mother from his abusive father, contains an underlying fear of the world that sometimes manifests in hyper-vigilant love.
From the first time the doctor placed you in my arms
I knew I’d meet death ‘fore I’d let you meet harm
Although questions arose in my mind, would I be man enough?
Against wrong, choose right and be standin’ up?
From the hospital that first night
Took a hour just to get the car seat in right
People drivin’ all fast, got me kinda upset
Got you home safe, placed you in your bassinette
That night I don’t think one wink I slept
As I slipped out my bed, to your crib I crept
Touched your head gently, felt my heart melt
‘Cause I knew I loved you more than life itself
The first verse of “Just the Two of Us” features the clearest example of Smith showing love through protection. Written for his son Will Smith III, otherwise known as Trey, these lyrics find the rapper-turned-actor at his most anxious, animated by a sense of responsibility that likely makes him both an excellent and exhausting parent.
The song begins with a recollection of the night Trey was born. The opening lines immediately establish the lengths Smith might go to protect his family. He claims he’s willing to give his life for his son’s safety, which would make damaging his reputation for his wife’s honor seem like a comparatively small price.
These are the trite things most men say when attempting to express love, some version of “I’d die for you.” But the lines that follow truly capture the urgency of wanting to shield someone from a world you can’t control. Something as simple as getting home from the hospital is made to feel like an odyssey now that Smith has the life of a smaller, more helpless person in his hands. It isn’t until the two reach the security of their home that he’s able to bring his guard down and let love feel like an embrace rather than a cover.
It didn’t work out with me and your mom
But yo, push come to shove, you was conceived in love
So if the world attacks, and you slide off track
Remember one fact, I got your back
The above is an excerpt from verse two. At the time the song was recorded, Trey was five years old, and Jada was pregnant with Will’s second child, Jaden. Like Richard Williams, by 1997, Will Smith had formed his second family which would turn out to be his most famous. Married to a well-known actress after splitting from his first wife, Trey’s mother Sheree Zampino, the Fresh Prince star uses these lines to make sure his son knows he was “conceived in love,” likely aware of how messy the aftermath of a Hollywood divorce can be.
His language in the latter half of these lyrics, the part about “if the world attacks,” brings to mind another moment from Smith’s speech at the Oscars. After declaring himself a river to his people, he noted how some of those people, Chris Rock included, take advantage of such nobility. “I know to do what we do, you got to be able to take abuse, you got to be able to have people talk crazy about you,” he said. “In this business, you got to be able to have people disrespecting you, and you got to smile and pretend like that’s okay.”
As he assures his son that he’d have his back should such cruelty ever come his way, clearly, the insults that come with celebrity have been on the actor’s mind for decades. This isn’t a trend he abruptly took issue with at the 2022 Oscars, and it predates the “entanglement” jokes from the past two years and even Rock’s previous joke about Jada boycotting the ceremony in 2016. A family-friendly MC during the era of gangster rap and perhaps the biggest movie star with the largest number of critical disappointments, Will Smith has lived a public life for the past 30 years that’s been subtly underscored by disrespect despite him being generally beloved.
Throughout life people will make you mad
Disrespect you and treat you bad
Let God deal with the things they do
‘Cause hate in your heart will consume you too
After recent events, the above excerpt from verse three feels like the song’s most poignant lyrics. Imparting similar wisdom on Trey that was given to him by Denzel Washington on Sunday, as Washington warned of the devil coming for us at our highest moments, Smith preaches to his son the importance of poise in the face of adversity.
What makes these lines particularly sad is they quantify exactly how much Smith lost himself on the Academy’s stage. For the entirety of his adult life, he seems to have been able to adhere to his own advice, moving as a model citizen under the pressures of being Black in Hollywood. But following a tremendously vulnerable book tour, an uptick in ridicule on social media, and a career defined by underappreciated achievements, Smith finally snapped.
Like his slapping of Chris Rock, the advice Smith gives to his son in the final verse of “Just The Two Of Us” feels like it’s given as much for his own sake as that of the person he believes he’s protecting. Some have accused Richard Williams of living just as vicariously through his family.
“Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams,” Smith joked toward the end of his speech. Make no mistake, there’s still something deeply unsettling about him comparing the insanity of assault to the radical delusion that turned two Black girls from Compton into tennis stars. But as he suggests, “Love will make you do crazy things,” I think of Will Smith’s own children—Trey, Jaden, and Willow—and imagine they feel just as protected as Venus and Serena Williams did under their own misunderstood father.