The Bittersweet Collective Memory of Jamila Woods’ HEAVN


From the cover art, Jamila Woods appears as a black Aphrodite emerging from the waters of Lake Michigan. From the music, Jamila Woods sings a voice of black girl magic that rises through the mire of a dark year. Amid a panoply of young Chicago voices, Woods’s debut album HEAVN uses a pastiche of nostalgia and collective memory to inform a heaven on earth for black girlhood.

Immediately, Woods’s voice resembles Erykah Badu’s to an uncanny extent. The same pained, thin timbre mixed with a rich sweetness sounds right off of New Amerykah, “Window Seat” in particular. The whole album plays as if part three of Badu’s classic series with poignant tracks as “Lonely Lonely,” “In My Name,” and “Holy” that could be mistaken for Badu. The longing of a black woman searching for an unscripted place in the world then presents itself as a guiding leitmotif throughout Woods’s rather ebullient album.

The album’s progression follows a growth of power, starting with “Bubbles” before going “Way Up.” With these two bookending tracks, Woods creates a forceful turbine, yet one with all the grace and beauty of black girlhood. Lyrically, she draws upon sources from Gwendolyn Brooks’ insistent, forceful rhythm and saccharine Drake riffs. Together, the sweetness has substance. For the “Just cos I’m born here / don’t mean I’m from here / I’m ready to run / And rocket to sun / I’m way up / I’m way up” on “Way Up” to be potent and not canned, the initial depth must first be set.

Woods’s Soundcloud introduction announces for the listener that the album will be tinged by the levity and bliss of “black girlhood,” but also the weight of the “caring for ourselves and each other […] a necessary and radical part of the struggle to create a more just society.” The first high-pitched machine inflected notes of the opener “Bubbles” then hits the heart as sounds of childhood on older ear. In quick succession, “[jumping] in puddles in double, double” turns into a game of limitations with the edict “You can’t pass through my bubble,” then finally the dark image of “knives inside my kitchen… picking my hair out and I know, now / How cold I really feel.” Elapsed in just over two minutes, the condensed transformation from playing outside to the hysteria of realizing illusions of freedom all come in the sweetest of melodies. The simplicity of the two images, so strongly sequestered, but so closely positioned recalls Brooks’ “a song in the front yard.” In Brooks’ poem, the young girl sees the sordid reality of the backyard after living her sheltered girlhood in the front, as a simple nursery rhyme rhythm marches.

With a similar formula on the following track, “VRY BLK,” Woods sings a honeyed incantation with the lull of a jump rope song, with the realist musings of “If I say that I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk line.” Yet, she doesn’t waver and keeps the lilt. The trident that will power her through is that she “is very Black, Black, Black,” The words are perhaps different from their accompanied melody, but they show a determination and resolve so characteristic to colored people, especially to black women. The outro of “And that is all I, that is all I know / And that is all I, that is all I know” almost mocks with its coy confidence.

With this confidence, Woods uses allusion as a sincerer mode of sampling by saturating her lyrics with quotes from her musical surround. On “Lonely Lonely,” she takes the Dawson Creek theme song “I Don’t Wanna Wait” not to convey feminine fragility and vulnerability, but to convey a strength in wanting freedom of thought, “to let [herself] feel the way [she] feel.” In place of Paula Cole’s frilly original, Woods’s darker, caramelized version still sticks to the ears, but sticks more closely to the heart with its ghostly, airy production. Similarly, on “Stellar,” the way to heavenly renewal is “leaving on a jet plane.” In using the pop pain of white singers, Woods takes their nostalgia appeal and fashions her own destination.

Questions of self-delusion and hysteria don’t overwhelm Woods, rather they push her to want more from the world, to want what was promised, but is regularly denied of blacks. As a constant attack of this segregation, spoken word snippets follow songs à la Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Yet, unlike Butterfly, the voice that speaks isn’t solely the artist’s. Woods also chooses to speak through a variety of black women telling their stories to create a bricolage of black girl power. From playful anecdotes of Rockin’ Robin to the story of loving one’s name to a children’s chorus chanting Assata Shakur’s poetry to verses on creating heaven and losing a grandfather, the album finds its telos. The recurring theme is self-love and Woods doesn’t shy away from using it as an incantation. The mix of speech and song suffuse the album’s arc with a continuous dialogue, weaving together layers and layers of black self-love.

What ultimately fuels her apotheosis is this combination of the voices backing Woods and her own insistent love of self and home. The catalogues of freedom fighters on “Blk Grl Soldier” live on in her words. The purifying and restorative powers of her native Lake Shore Drive run through her veins on “LSD.” On “Holy,” Woods makes the oft-cited darkest valley a bit more comfortable with her refusal to fear self-love. The deluge of self-love attempts to rewrite the self-hate so strongly infused in the collective black memory. Woods needs to restate her self-love over and over again create an insular space, a sort of room of her own. She’s “not lonely, [she’s] alone / and [she’s] holy on [her] own.” This is the space that on the finale, “Way Up,” makes her “an alien from inner space” because she lives of herself so fully. Her mantra allows her to create her own world in a shared space. The bittersweet realities of black girlhood allow her to sing herself a stronger self.

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