Genre: Art Pop
Favorite Tracks: “GIOVANNI,” “EARTHA,” “BALDWIN,” “SUN RA”
There is much to gain from studying the framework laid out by your ancestors. The fact that much of our personhood is a result of the legacy of someone else should be obvious, as history is cyclical and much of our hurt, healing, and joy doesn’t happen without the influence of others. In short, identity is not formed in a vacuum. Jamila Woods seems to understand this well based on the level of attention and care she has placed on turning the teachings and impact of many literary and musical icons into a singular album, one jam-packed with lessons on life, love, and confidence.
Each song on Woods’ sophomore release, LEGACY! LEGACY!, is titled after the person who inspired it. Some names, such as Frida, Basquiat, and Baldwin, are more obvious, while some might require further study for those who are less familiar with black writers, musicians, and entertainers. “BETTY,” the album’s opener for example, is an ode to Betty Davis, the funk musician known for her sensuality and stage presence whose contributions to funk sometimes get overshadowed by her marriage to Miles Davis. On the song’s chorus, Woods sings “Falling for myself it’s taken time to know I’m mine,” her voice swelling and triumphant, the lyric feeling like an anchor for the type self-love and confidence explored throughout the rest of the album.
Standout track “GIOVANNI” pulls its inspiration from Nikki Giovanni’s iconic poem Ego Tripping, in which Giovanni goes on an “ego trip,” comparing herself to the many marvels of Africa. Woods similarly ego trips and proceeds to flex on whoever needs to hear it; Woods continues that self-love fest throughout the album on songs like “ZORA,” “EARTHA,” and “SUN RA (featuring The Mind and Jasminfire).” Throughout the first half of the album, Jamila maintains her jazzy and soulful tone, even while singing about topics that surely warrant anger and sadness.
Pulling from that anger, on the second half of the album, “MILES” and “MUDDY” stand out because of Woods’ experimentation with voice. On “MILES,” Woods takes on the voice of legendary jazz musician Miles Davis: “Shut up motherfucker I don’t take requests,” she sings, as the melodic runs carry the song forward. The track leans heavily into Miles Davis’ confidence, exploring his choices, both to turn around and play with his back to the crowd and also to whisper in board meetings. On “MUDDY,” which opens with the line “motherfuckers won’t shut up” we are met with grit, as Woods’ vocal tone and instrumentation sound markedly different; it’s most apparent that this is a tribute rather than a song inspired by, or in reference to, the person alluded to in the title. When Woods sings “he can shake the fire out,” she is directly singing about Muddy Waters himself.
“BALDWIN” rises above the grit of the second half and returns to the mellow confidence of the first. It sets itself apart from other tracks on the album in who it chooses to address and how. Backed by soulful trumpet from Nico Segal, Woods address those with “lethal fear”; fear of the other is often discussed as a hindrance to everyone involved and, at its worst, it is quite literally lethal. Gentrifiers being afraid of residents calling police who are afraid of black people results in “somebody’s daddy laid out in the street and for what?” In a letter to his nephew, writer James Baldwin says that “these innocent white people we must accept them with love,” which can be incredibly difficult when you are repeatedly shown how a group of people doesn’t view you as their equal or even as human. When Woods sings “We don’t go out can’t wish us away / We been burning brighter everyday” backed by a choir, it seems as though it is a message both to black people and to the people who would like to see us gone. To black people, it says we’ve got each other and we made it through some harrowing times—we’ll still be here. To the people who’d like to wish us away, it says “we’re here, learn to deal with it.”
More beautiful than Woods’ voice is the amount of thought and care that seems to have gone into this album, which should come as no surprise. Woods’ track record as an author and educator with Young Chicago Authors shows how deeply invested she is in blackness, literary tradition, and growing and supporting her community. This album honors and uplifts vast and important bodies of work in a way that feels authentic because of the way Woods interweaves her own narratives into some songs. She is not concerned with being “the first” or “the only.” In recognizing her predecessors, she has created a body of work that teaches just as much as it is fun to listen to.