Just as we don’t get to choose when we’re born, or to whom, the place where we actually come into the world is likewise non-negotiable. Jamila Woods’ journey began in Chicago, a city that seeps its sound and feel into her just-released debut album, HEAVN. A statement from the singer, who already made big waves this year after appearing on fellow Chi artist Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book track “Blessings,” explains that the project “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.” It’s impact, however, moves beyond borders.
It’s been a good year for Chicago music, with Woods’ new release coming off the heels of Coloring Book, as well as solid releases from Save Money crew members Joey Purp, Towkio, and Brian Fresco. Beyond appearing on Chance’s latest, Woods’ debut project likewise hedges towards a nouveau gospel sound, as evidenced on tracks like “Holy.”
Woods also brings out the Rapper on “LSD,” a song that’s not identifying a drug trip, but rather a voyage along Illinois’ Lake Shore Drive highway. Taking an extra local approach by speeding up the melody of Chicago soul singer Donell Jones’ “Where I Wanna Be,” it has the singer smoothly noting she prefers her comparatively landlocked bodies of water over either coast’s vast and open oceans. If you don’t like it, you can “just leave it alone.” Chance the Rapper hops aboard the cut with his friendly-sounding flow to target Spike Lee’s exploitation of Chicago’s gun violence in his recent Chi-Raq film, assert his role as a block ambassador, and note that he’ll still celebrate homegrown ball player Derrick Rose, despite a recent move from the Bulls to the Knicks.
While sonically playful, “VRY BLK” is one of many tracks on HEAVN to address politics, and assert the artist’s blackness. While she flirts with the familiar “Hello Operator” schoolyard rhyme, she does so while reporting on police violence in her community. She later channels the death of Eric Garner with the chilling question, “If I say that I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk line?” However, there’s strength and conviction to rise up against this, with Woods powerfully piping up: “You take my brother, I fight back.”
A similar sentiment is served up in “Blk Grl Soldier,” a song that has the artist applauding the strength and determination of freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman, Assata Shakur and Rosa Parks. Poignantly, she points out how speaking out on prejudice is often met with derision (“We get loud about it/Oh, now we’re the bitches.”) Following recent Black Lives Matter protests brought on by this month’s shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the police and media reaction that led to standoffs in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the song stands potent.
Woods also talks family history, with the title track exploring her ancestors’ undying love. The song also takes a look at the pop music’s recent past by borrowing a few lines from English post-punk group the Cure’s signature “Just Like Heaven.” “Lonely Lonely” is a blessedly bumped R&B piece that revisits the hook to Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” (a.k.a. the Dawson’s Creek theme song).
HEAVN is marked with plenty of insight into Woods’ life in Chicago. Interstitial phone skits explain how she got her name, while the swerved and melancholy “Lately” offers up the notion that someone quite close to her had succumbed to illness. Structurally, it’s a Windy City party that also includes guest verses from Noname and Saba, as well as the sound of Donnie Trumpet’s fantastically brassy horn. It’s an astonishing first act, a unifying collection that will no doubt be bumped all over this summer. They can probably already hear it up in the heavens above.
– review by Gregory Adams