While you may not know her name, you definitely know her voice. Jamila Woods is the soul singer providing the heartfelt, biblical choruses to Chance the Rapper’s “Sunday Candy” and “Blessings” off his newly released Coloring Book. Having signed to independent Chicago label Closed Sessions back in January, she recently released her debut album on SoundCloud, entitled HEAVN. Due to the timing of its release and the themes of black empowerment and womanhood that it deals with, divorcing the album from the recent events in America of unarmed black men being shot by cops and a number of cops gunned down in Dallas is almost impossible. While that may be seen to some as a way to praise the album not for its greatness on a purely musical level, but because of its messages, it is instead a way of saying that an album like this is absolutely necessary given the current climate in the States.
The question then turns to whether this necessary album is any good? The answer is a resounding yes. With features from the likes of fellow Chicagoans Chance, Saba, Donnie Trumpet and Noname, (FKA Noname Gypsy) Jamila crafts a loving, passionate and powerful tribute to black women, men and the idea of blackness. A particular standout is “VRY BLK” with Noname, which uses a disarming children’s nursery rhyme scheme to speak out on the horrors of police violence against African-Americans with lines like “Hello operator? Emergency hotline/ If I say that I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk/ line up to see the movie, line up to see the show.” Or on similar standout, “Blk Girl Soldier”: “Camera loves us, Oscar doesn’t.” With lines like these, Woods shows that she is first and foremost a poet, making up for her lack of extensive vocal range with an expansive amount of charisma and evocation to go along with her inventive lyrics. Other songs out of the twelve tracks deal with archetypal love and relationship woes, yet Woods remains in control and knowledgeable about her wants and desires, refusing to back down.
The production for the most part follows a similar slant to the lyrics of “VRY BLK”. Meaning, the songs are founded on a silky smooth guitar riff and buoyed by spacey synths and drumbeats which contributes to a dreamy atmosphere at odds with the grave subject matter. Instead of distracting listeners, it serves to draw them in to the poetry at work, especially on songs like the Donnie Trumpet featuring “Breadcrumbs”, where Donnie’s trumpet and the snares in the background give listeners a playful aura in which Woods muses on the idea of love.
With HEAVN, Jamila Woods ultimately preaches a message of self-love in the face of hatred and bigotry, celebrating uniqueness in the face of conformity, and the ability to stand up for oneself in the face of oppression. It is her first occupation as a poet that gives her lyrics an authentic and impressive gravitas, helped in no small part by her ingenious flows. As a debut album, it is an impressive project, but as an album existing in the current America, it is essential.