For many, Jamila Woods is still an unknown talent. Apart from collaborations with high-calibre talents such as Donnie Trumpet and Chance the Rapper on their single ‘Sunday Candy’, as well as featuring on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ ‘White Privilege II’, it’s a struggle to find the R&B singer’s work. However, she is far from inactive –outside of music, her activist work in Chicago makes her a key figure in the local scene. Her strong stances on social issues, as well as her links with all the talent emerging from Chicago lately, both come through on her debut album, ‘Heavn’.
Undeniably, this is a protest album, fighting for equality for black lives, as well as documenting the everyday experience of love and self-belief. Beyond that, however, it’s hard to quite define what this album is – the playful, spirited, even childish feel of the album defies expectations of what politically charged albums sound like. Opening tracks ‘Bubbles’ and ‘VRY BLK’ encompass this mood, with popping, airy percussion on ‘Bubbles’, and the playground rhyming- and clapping-schemes on ‘VRY BLK’ showing the inner child in Woods. Contrast this with the lyrics, however, and you get a very different picture. “Hello operator, emergency hotline, if I say that I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk line?” asks Woods, clearly referring to Mike Brown in the middle of a rhyme scheme you’d expect kids to be skipping to.
This theme admittedly ebbs and flows throughout the whole album, maturing as the album progresses, yet without getting darker or angrier. Title track ‘HEAVN’ tells of love in the face of on-going oppression: “…Show me how you do that trick, the one that makes you love someone, the world wants us so numb and alone.” ‘LSD’, referring to Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, tells the listener of her love for her hometown and her resilience against criticism and hostility towards both herself and the city, enlisting the help of Chance the Rapper for a verse. However nowhere is the theme more prominent than on ‘Blk Girl Soldier’; “We go missing by the hundreds, ain’t nobody checking for us;” “Look at what they did to my sister, make her hate her skin, treat her like a sin.” On face value angry and fed up with the way of things, Woods’ delivery is calm, well-composed and even optimistic, calling for resilience and change while outlining the injustices she and many others face.
The diverse feel of the tracks, from light-hearted and playful to defiant and strong-willed, is reflected by the immense guest-list on the album. Seemingly every track is produced or features a new talent, all from Chicago – Donnie Trumpet, Saba and Noname all make appearances – however the main musical influences shine through on the production list. oddCouple’s upbeat mastery shines through on ‘VRY BLK’ and closing track ‘Way Up’, while ‘Breadcrumbs’ shows a more mature, soul-fuelled approach. A more guitar sample-based take on things comes in the form of ‘In My Name’ with Nate Fox and Loshendrix, as well as the melancholic pair of ‘Lately’ and ‘Lonely Lonely’, both with Carter Lang. Heavy hitter ‘Blk Girl Soldier’ shows the resilience and strength of the album, both lyrically and musically, with production from Jus Cuz and Saba propelling the track to the fore.
‘Heavn’ plays out like a documentary of Jamila Woods’ youth in Chicago, capturing the setbacks and heartaches yet dealing with them through strength and optimism. Her debut album is sure to be one of this year’s most prominent releases from the windy city.
Jamila Woods is giving this album away for free via Soundcloud, but be sure to give her a follow while you’re at it.