Smith is among the slate of guests on the recently released new season of Letterman’s conversational Netflix series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. The interview, notably, was recorded prior to the Oscars slap. Early into the discussion, Smith—who this year won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Richard Williams in King Richard—looked back on how childhood trauma had an impact on the unique drive behind his entire career.
Later, about 12 minutes into the episode, Letterman told Smith his “first awareness” of him as a star was during his early work with DJ Jazzy Jeff. After touting Jeff’s influence as “one of the early masters of scratching and cutting,” Letterman pointed out the use of humor in his music.
“That was really our major distinguishing quality at the time,” Smith said. “It was comedy, it was punchlines, it was fun. We stood out in a really a good way.”
When asked by Letterman if he ever felt any pressure within the industry to more or less “move out” of that specific lane, Smith opened up about being called “soft” and mentioned some remarks from his grandmother that have received ongoing attention throughout his career.
“Not pressure as much as it was always that I was ‘soft,’” Smith said. “Dave, I hated that, being called soft. The origin of my style and why I pursued it in that way [is] when I was about 12, my grandmother, she found my first rap book.” In that composition book, Smith recalled, he had kept lyrics, some of which featured perceived profanities.
“I couldn’t even curse well,” he joked. “It was like, ‘Shit ass damn/Will, you the man.’ Not even good cursing. My grandmother found my rap book and wrote a letter in [the] front of my book and said, ‘Dear Willard, truly intelligent people do not have to use words like these to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are. Love, Gigi.’ And that was the reason I never cursed in any of my records.”
The “soft” criticism was recently brought back into the conversation amid the extended Oscars slap coverage, with slap recipient Chris Rock taking that route during a Comedy Store appearance earlier this month. “I got smacked by the softest n***a that ever rapped,” Rock said, per the Hollywood Reporter.