Listeners of Chance the Rapper and Macklemore might recognize the name Jamila Woods; the Chicagoan’s name graced the credits of the former’s “Sunday Candy” and Coloring Book and the latter’s “White Privilege II”. Those that’ve paid a little closer attention will know too that she puts out her own music. Closer still, they’ll know she’s also a poet and activist. And yet all of this knowledge can’t compartmentalize or contain Woods’ brilliance, a voice (both literal and figurative) whose strength is compounded by her many facets. On her debut full-length, HEAVN, Woods lets each of those facets shine, without letting any of them get lost in the glow.
Woods is not shy about the aims of her music: “HEAVN is about black girlhood, about Chicago, about the people we miss who have gone on to prepare a place for us somewhere else, about the city/world we aspire to live in,” she notes on the album’s SoundCloud debut. For all of these things, she stands tall, offering a voice not only of astute criticism and observation, but also of hope for a better future and black self-love today. And, more impressively, she conveys these charged feelings in equally ambitious music, songs that unite and empower despite their apparent complexity.
The sublime “VRY BLK” stands tall in that regard, using the structures of children’s rhyme “Miss Susie” to dissect the very adult realities of systemic racism and police violence. oddCouple and Kweku Collins’ wobbling, clicking beat, while Woods alternates between playground chants, lush harmonies, and a rap flow. “Hello operator, emergency hotline/ If I say that I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk/ Line up to see the movie,” she notes, the round continuing onto another protest against the violence. “I’m very black,” she insists on the chorus, adding that if you take her brother she’ll fight back.
The song feels as if Woods is speaking for an entire community, but then Woods adds a tag, as if to remind that the community is of course made up of so many individuals. The track ends with a recording of a phone conversation, an explanation of a specific memory in which a group of black women she met at work all knew the same childhood rhyming game, while the white employees looked on in confusion. “It was literally like the best inside secret that I felt like I had ever had,” she explains. “That’s one of my favorite things about blackness.” To that same end, HEAVN itself feels like a happy secret, one that finds connection and joy despite the fuel of oppression.
Woods speaks too from the best city for that kind of fusion of love and pain, Chicago. Featuring her past collaborator and another of the city’s brightest voices, Chance the Rapper, “LSD” sees Lake Michigan as a sign of strength and stability and the highway that rides alongside (Lake Shore Drive) as a communal intersection joining the city. “This here ain’t for no Vice doc,” Chance offers. “Even though you break my heart/ The water’s gonna save me,” Woods adds. The two stand tall as proud Chicagoans with a conflicted relationship with their city; it may be known by some as “Chi-Raq,” but these two see strength and beauty as well as the danger.
That rite of self-determination extends beyond the city, the ability to define and appreciate the self one of the ultimate signs of strength. “I don’t wanna wait for my life to be over/ To let myself feel the way I feel,” she sings on “Lonely Lonely”, interpolating the Paula Cole Dawson’s Creek theme. The Saba-featuring “Emerald” borrows from Mister Rogers, insisting that it’s a wonderful day in the hood. The lyrics to “HEAVN” crib The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”. We are a product of our influences, upbringing, and history, and to deny any part of it would be to allow the system to overpower the self. . “I could be crazy/ But my crazy is my own … I put a post-it note on my mirror/ So I might love myself,” she offers on “Lonely Lonely”. Even against insurmountable odds, Woods encourages listeners to love each other and themselves by finding common ground.
The rebellious “Blk Girl Soldier” reminds that all of this love is good, but change will only come with a fight. Woods lists freedom fighters — Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Sojourner Truth, Assata Shakur — and encourages listeners to never give up, to learn from their lessons. “Call it black girl magic/ Yeah she scares the gov’ment/ Deja vu of Tubman,” she repeats, reminding who she and so many are assumed to be. For every bit of poetry Woods offers a clear message, for every complex emotion there’s a shot of pure instrumental bliss. Her harmonies are as sweet as her criticisms are biting. “For black and brown people, caring for ourselves and each other is not a neutral act,” she notes in a press release accompanying the album. “It is a necessary and radical part of the struggle to create a more just society.” By embracing the darkness and shining a light, Woods contributes to a future that should reach something closer to that ideal.
Essential Tracks: “LSD”, “VRY BLK”, and “Blk Girl Soldier”