From the opening R&B samples and powerful horn section that triumphantly blasts the arrival of a new hero on the scene, Willis’ The Understanding perfectly captures the inner-city swagger of a blaxploitation movie icon. Strutting through these dirty streets like he is God almighty, Willis unashamedly kicks the doors in and sits at the head of the table. “Money” is the perfect anthem for his regime. “Before or after me, there’s none of a kind!” he boasts.
The yacht-rock backing track of “Baller on a Budget” is a guide to a lifestyle that Willis not only wants the listener to admire but emulate in every way, and it’s impossible to say no. “Up All Night” invites us to the VIP section, getting down with the ladies while “standing on sofas” and waiting for last call orders to come around. It’s a deliciously danceable wish-fulfillment that Willis is more than happy to grant.
Of course, with every good time, there is the eventual comedown. “Nowhere to Hide” is a dark foray into facing the penalty for one’s sins, while “Painkillers” is the retribution for ignoring them, a high-pitched wave of vocals mocking and taunting the abuse that’s coming on the horizon. But, thankfully, Willis and crew offer shreds of hope, especially with the beautifully insightful “Lessons from My Father” and the final track, “Rhyme + Reason,” wherein he proudly explains his reason for existence without any guilt or guile. It doesn’t matter what Willis is talking about; it just matters that you’re understanding it. — Louis Fowler