Jul 15, 2016

Review: HEAVN - Jamila Woods (@duhmilo); A Niles P. Joint

It’s inevitable that while writing album reviews, you’ll come across more than a few albums to which you don’t relate. Not everything is going to be from or marketed to someone in your exact same demographic. Your job as a writer, however, is to see past that and appreciate the music for its artistry while still recognizing its message. This was the case when Chicago soulstress Jamila Woods released her debut album Heavn. The free project is a de facto musical tribute to Black Girl Magic and while there are certainly some esoteric elements that come with that, it is one of the most complete R&B/Soul albums you’ll here this year, if not this generation. It’s essential listening for 2016, especially in the current climate.  

Listening to Heavn for a few days straight, I didn’t catch this on my first few spins. It’s actually a loose concept album that follows the journey of a Black girl from childhood on. Bubbles is the first track and introduces Woods’ sweet (but not artificially so) voice that seems to float through the song. It continues with VERY BLK which takes a playful cadence heard in blacktop chants and uses it to talk about police brutality. The enigmatic & rechristened fan favorite NoName contributes a verse. It’s an upbeat song that’s like a Black Lives Matter primer that also introduces the periodic in-song interludes that explain the next track. Lonely Lonely is a slower and more somber duet with Lornie Chia that shows a strength in self reflection even the worst days. Things pick up with the title track as Woods yearns for the simpler elements of love.

While In My Name clocks in under two minutes, it’s still one of the most passionate on the album. It covers both getting someone’s complicated name right (an issue among POC) and not calling one out their name in any arena. Blk Girl Soldier exemplifies he plight and simultaneously celebrates the strength and resiliency of Black women, offering tribute to those in history that “taught us how to fight.” A song titled LSD featuring Chance The Rapper isn’t about acid but instead a tribute to and defense of Chicago (LSD is Lake Shore Drive in this case).  Emerald St. is a more localized companion piece, this time featuring Saba. Both are excellent in encapsulating the essence of Chi Town and all the good things when the rest of the world seems intent on making them the example of a bad city to prove a misguided point. Woods and friends certainly make their case.

Having two songs in a row with connecting themes continues. Lately is a song about loss that has one of the most powerful lines I’ve heard in “You are the library burned/ But they can’t take the lessons I learned.” It’s melancholy but much needed as it’s a fact of life we all deal with. Donnie Trumpet of The Social Experiment lends his self explanatory talents to Breadcrumbs. This one is about dealing with a grandparent that’s suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's. It’s more specific and heart wrenching than the previous track but they work together in a moving & sentimental way.  

You’ll hear the most crisp guitars of all time on Stellar, which interpolates the incubus song of the same name. It’s another short song, but it hints to something much more grand. Although Holy has some religious undertones, it’s enjoyable regardless of your faith as it illustrates the value of self-love in the face of adversity. It has the potential to brighten your day every single time you listen to it. The culmination of the entire album is Way Up. Woods seems to describe herself and Black women as a whole as not transcendent, but outer worldly.  When you consider the full essence of both, as displayed on this album specifically, she’s right.

As much as I try to stray away from hyperbole, Heavn just may be the best album of the year across all of the genres. Jamila Woods has crafted a masterpiece of a concept album that has several sub concepts within and still has insane replay value in each song. She also manages to tap some of Chicago’s hip hop bohemians (NoName, Chano, Saba, & Trumpet) for her cause, ensuring that this album will be historically remembered as one of the city’s best. In a time where it’s very much needed, she gives hope and inspiration to Black girls everywhere through her music while also making something accessible to everyone due to the album’s aural mastery. This is one of those things that I’m going to send to EVERYBODY, my sisters, friends, classmates, co-writers, etc. because in all honesty, everyone needs to hear it.

Rating; 5 out of 5.

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