There are people who raise you up close, and people who raise you from afar. That’s how we build our personal histories: by observing what’s happening around us and learning to maneuver with (or around) it, and by allowing ourselves to dream, taking in art and using it as the foundation of imagination.
On the pointed, twisty, at times gut-punchingly potent “Legacy! Legacy!” Jamila Woods literalizes this tug of war between the hand the world deals and the places one goes in order to envision how things could be different. Each song is a tribute to and celebration of a crucial creative titan: Sun Ra, Eartha Kitt, Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston and more. From each of them, Woods has drawn inspiration and lessons about how to triumph over the challenges of everyday life.
Woods, 29, is from Chicago, and first emerged a few years ago in that city’s poetry scene and as part of a duo, M&O. She began to attract wider notice for her koan-like singing collaborations with Chance the Rapper, on “Sunday Candy” (from his album with Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment), and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, on “White Privilege II.” She followed that with her solo debut album of earthy, politically pointed soul, “Heavn,” in 2016.
“Legacy! Legacy!” is a fully realized follow-up, sure-footed in its blend of what was, what is and what might be. They intersect most strikingly on “Sonia,” a glittery hip-hop-influenced funk song that’s one of this album’s most bracing. “My great, great granny was born a slave/she found liberation before the grave/who you tellin how to behave?“ Woods sings, in a voice that’s so sweet it cuts. The song is about a partner who became a monster, and the strength it took to overcome the trauma he inflicted:
I remember saying no to things that happened anyway
I remember feeling low the mirror took my face away
I couldn’t recognize her
I laid & cried til my
tears washed the kitchen tiles
On the deceptively soothing “Eartha,” Woods stands firm against a system of oppression so casually pervasive it manifests even in the tiny interactions of a romantic relationship. “The curve of your learning that’s my labor, my love,” she says. “Explaining myself again/I could have run a mile instead, I could have twist my ends instead.”
Woods has been a poet and educator, and on this album, all of her identities feed each other. Her lyrics — which are abundant and overflowing — are image-thick and robust, cuttingly personal and also historically minded. Words are her comfort. As a singer, she has a tart voice reminiscent of Erykah Badu, and her way with syllables is dynamic. Sometimes she gathers them into a tight cluster, and sometimes she doles them out pointilistically, for added force.
“Legacy! Legacy!” is a significant step forward from “Heavn,” which was more direct and less singular in approach. The new album feels more intact, thanks in great part to the lush, viscous production by Slot-A: “Basquiat” is searingly bright jazz-inflected soul with neosoul flourishes; “Octavia” is clever space-funk. But the musical high point is “Muddy” — as in Muddy Waters — which leads with frenetic, urgent, dirty guitar on a song about how culture gets taken at every turn: “They can study my fingers/they can mirror my pose/they can talk your good ear off/on what they think they know.”
In many of these songs, there is an antagonist, someone — often a romantic partner, it seems — who wants Woods to remain as she was. “I’m trying to fly, you insist on clipping my wings,” she notes on “Betty.”
But at each turn, Woods has a history to draw on, a blueprint for how to move forward no matter how hard others try to keep her in the past. By telling these stories about herself in this way, Woods inscribes them into a broader, longer arc of history. Her wounded confessionals become blossoming tales of overcoming.
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