Review: Jamila Woods’ Vision of ‘HEAVN’ Is Neither Lost Nor Lonely
Release Date: July 15, 2016
Label: Closed Session
Collectivism in art is kind of bulls**t, no? How many artists have good-naturedly brought their squad with them to the top, only to find that Uncle Kracker was not quite up to his American Bad Ass compatriot or that the rest of the Smell’s beneficiaries were not No Age? And it’s disheartening how many rappers have historically overstayed their welcome with a bad crew album. (Maybe Odd Future got compared to Wu-Tang just for having more than three members anyone cared about.) Whatever you think of Kanye in 2016, it’s a good thing that we’re shifting away from pop’s umbrella model of a demigod-plus-underlings; Desiigner’s chart-topping reign is looking short-lived while Chicago’s more subtly bankable SaveMoney collective puts down roots for the foreseeable future.
Chance the Rapper has made some of the best rap and rap-adjacent records of the 2010s and infuses more of his city into his music than Kanye and Common put together. But he’s not bigger than his people, and he doesn’t pretend to be, and that’s a huge part of what makes him so lovely; as it stands, his biggest hit, “Sunday Candy,” was credited to a pseudonym too silly to believe anyone actually calls trumpeter Nico Segal by it. But the neat part is it’s also singer Jamila Woods’ biggest hit, which is nice because the 26-year-old singer/poet is also on a Macklemore song.
As it happens, Woods’ “VERY BLK,” which towers over her solo debut HEAVN, is the anti-“White Privilege II.” It’s a direct line to her living experience and the only way to engage with that is to listen; there’s nothing to argue about. (Then again, you’d think Black Lives Matter was self-explanatory too.) Stray marimbas wobble beneath the familiar “hello operator” playground chant refitted to encompass Black America’s ongoing PTSD, as more and more law enforcement communities are revealed to be targeting and terrorizing communities of color: “If I say that I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk line?” The breeziness of the track makes it even more unnerving than Vic Mensa’s recent, comparatively straightforward “16 Shots,” about Laquan McDonald’s shooting.
On the next tune, “Lonely Lonely,” Woods addresses people who think she’s crazy — hint: they clogged up the RNC — and appropriates Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” to similarly bizarre effect. HEAVN interpolates liberally, lifting verses from Incubus’ bent-string serenade “Stellar” and granting the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” a breakbeat and an escapist subtext that the guys behind “Killing an Arab” never could’ve imparted themselves. Reclaiming these alt-radio mainstays adds levity to subjects for which there are no more tears left to cry, like on the gut-wrenching centerpiece, “Blk Girl Solider”: “They want us in the kitchen / Kill our sons with lynchings / We get loud about it / Oh, now we’re the bitches?”
The singer’s troubled calm is redolent of Erykah Badu, as well as the gospel Woods is helping to re-evangelize in the hip-hop community: HEAVN’s own “Sunday Candy” (in the same penultimate track position and all) is the ebullient self-love workout “Holy.” But her snappy neo-soul sketches know a healing property that stretches across genre lines; how else to explain Donnie Trumpet dueling with a generous portion of Stereolab’s “The Flower Called Nowhere” on “Breadcrumbs?”
HEAVN is musically spry and spiritually hefty at 41 minutes, the questioning half of a nationally fraught Q&A that’s long deserved the answers, none of whom are currently running for president. It’s an auspicious welcome for an artist who’s lifting up her entire community of talent with her and making the task look light as a feather — all the while spinning on a dizzy edge.