Actor hopes that ''Big Willie'' will mark a return to old-fashioned rap music

America’s favorite man in black is back, this time to save the rap world from the scum of the universe.

Maybe that’s overstating the mission, even by hip-hop’s hyperbolic standards. But the artist currently known as Will Smith — the Fresh Prince, to you old-schoolers — does think of himself as a change agent in the evolution of hip-hop. And if the shift he sees at hand sounds like a reactionary one, well, he wants you to remember rap’s more innocent days as he drops his first album in four years, Big Willie Style.

”Rap’s gone through a sort of dark ages,” says Smith, chowing down a fajita in sunny Brentwood, Calif., before leaving for Baltimore and a long winter’s film shoot on director Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State. ”I think with the loss of Biggie [Smalls] and Tupac [Shakur], the rap industry is ready for a change. I’m just feeling good to be part of the renaissance.” Which is? ”Rap got away from the essence. The essence of rap was always about partying and having fun. The best rapper was the one that could rock the crowd. How well you shot a gun wasn’t part of the criteria.”

And how well you fill international box office coffers isn’t one now. Though his summer ’96 and ’97 films, Independence Day and Men in Black, were the biggest-grossing of their respective years — and though he had a smash forget-me-not of a novelty hit with the latter’s theme song — there are no guarantees the hip-hop faithful will cotton to Big Willie.

But, after saying upon ID4‘s release that he was probably through with music, there are reasons for Smith’s return. One is that he signed with Sony after settling a contract dispute with Jive Records, which Smith says rebuffed him three years ago when he wanted to make new music. More recently, he asserts, Jive ”turned down the Men in Black song, saying it wasn’t a hit. So that fired me up. Just for the record, ‘Men in Black’ was the most-played record in the history of rap.” A smile. ”Just for the record.” (Jive officials declined comment, citing the confidentiality clause in their settlement.)

In addition, the musical climate, he says, is more encouraging. ”I’d almost stopped listening to rap…. Wyclef [Jean] was the person that got me started again. When the Fugees dropped, and then Nas and Jay-Z, I started coming back in…. Then, after ‘Pac and Biggie got killed, I felt like, I have to make records. Even if I don’t have a hit, I’m putting my energy out there, because the vibe of rap was just sh–ty. I was like, ‘F— it, if people don’t like my records, fine, but I’m putting ’em out.’ I want my son to have a rap record with no profanity — clean and fun.”

That son, 5-year-old Trey (from Smith’s first marriage, to songwriter Sheree Zampino), gets an extended shout-out on the album, as does actress/fiancee Jada Pinkett, though most of the infectiously, vaingloriously self-referential Big Willie deals with Smith’s take on being one of the biggest stars in the universe. At 29, he figures this type of autobiography is no different from, at 19, writing about parents not understanding: ”All I can offer is myself, how my days are. There’s a line on the record: ‘I wake up every morning on a canopy bed/Slip a kiss to the miss, ”You the man,” she says/Mirror, mirror, need I call you/You know, uno, bad breath and all.’ It’s comedic arrogance. But on the flip side of that, it’s real.”