MusicWeekend

Jamila Woods and Her Ancestral Spirits

Woods’s new album Legacy! Legacy! is framed by the presence of a larger community — the enacted community of choir singing and an imagined community of Black artists.

Jamila Woods’s new album is an aural representation of community. The Chicago poet and singer-songwriter has expanded her musical palette: Legacy! Legacy!, out since May, bursts with rainbow-tinted beats, richly referential soul grooves, warmly layered voices joining to form a choir in a hall of sonic mirrors. With each song named after a Black culture hero (“Baldwin,” “Zora,” “Miles,” etc), she’s writing songs that capture how life is informed by history—art history.

An established poet and community organizer, Woods first emerged as a musician as one half of M&O, her folk-soul collaboration with Owen Hill, with whom she defined a hushed, gentle sensibility informed by acoustic bedroom pop and children’s music.

She broke through when she sang the chorus on Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment’s “Sunday Candy,” a hit largely thanks to her voice: friendly, pungent, delighted, with a sharp nasal edge that adds a skeptical observer’s distance to what might otherwise sound one-dimensionally positive and affirming.

Her first solo album, Heavn (2016), mixed political protest with quiet contemplation, a musical rendition of Chicago that presented the city as an intimate playground and a site for private introspection.

The album’s sparkly neosoul was crisper and more electric than her previous music, yet still tender, blending the glassy keyboards, echoing percussion, and bubbly xylophones into a sort of R&B pastoral, as bracing and restorative as Lake Michigan (“You gotta love me like I love the lake,” she sang on “LSD”). “Lonely” captures her approach: a floaty, midtempo ballad, it sounds vaporous on first listen, and then you notice the metallic clunk of the drums, the lovely mournful electronic organ hook, the gingery tang in her voice as she sings “Don’t take from me my quiet/don’t take from me my tears/don’t take from me my trials/don’t take from me my fears.”

Legacy! Legacy! plays similarly, as a soft-lit reflection of melancholy and gratitude, but the mirror’s scope is wider. Lyrically and vocally, her introspection is framed by the presence of a larger community — the enacted community of choir singing, and the imagined community of Black artists alluded to in the song titles, addressed or impersonated or merely invoked as mythical presences.

Woods has embraced an approach to intellectual Black pop that peaked with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) and gradually became less common since, where the complexity of the historical connections drawn in the lyrics is matched by the delicate intricacy of the equally allusive beatwork. Legacy! Legacy! is simultaneously darkly shaded and vividly colorful, a contained kaleidoscope that shifts rapidly and playfully between spiraling jazz piano, murky funk rhythm guitar, fragmented rays of condensed guitar riffs, watery keyboard swirls, obscured partially by shadows. This is fusion soul, performed with ideas about texture endemic to rock psychedelia; it’s like Solange’s When I Get Home (2019) but with fully developed songs.

“Zora” moves with cautious energy, as a dusty, delayed piano loop stutters over breezy, cymbal-heavy drums; she keeps adding fuzzy electronic whooshes with each chorus, so the song ends in a whirl of frizz and flicker. While the chorus expresses her modest, defiant realization that “You will never know everything, everything/I will never know everything, everything,” the song’s emotional center lies in the wordless flurry of sighs that erupts immediately after.

The album’s centerpiece, “Basquiat,” a feathery cloud of exhaustion and menace, slowly creeps over antsy bass, fluid squiggles of guitar serving as textual frames rather than melodic elements, and a hushed drum track that patters and hops and taps its feet at double-time in contrast to the slow overall beat, growing tenser and airier throughout.

The background singers, consisting of her own electronically replicated voice, keep chattering at her, so the song becomes a conversation between her interior and exterior selves (“Are you mad? Yes I’m mad/What make you mad? I can’t recall/I plead the fifth, writing’s on the wall”). Her stern singing and pleasurably spacious arrangement reject spontaneous anger for a calmer, simmering, more rational anger.

“Giovanni” is her brightest chromatic splash: after gliding for three minutes over crinkly bass and subdued house strings, a gleaming guitar solo soars out from nowhere, resolving all the song’s tension in a flash.

To exhume past and present heroic influences could become repetitive in its reverence, but she’s not schematic about it. Sometimes she describes her subjects (“Muddy”), sometimes she pretends to be them (“Sun Ra”), and sometimes they’re not directly cited (“Eartha”), just names to suggest moods, which is true to the way history pervades life: constantly, if inexactly, present, but not always in focus. Sometimes her crisscrossing references tangle, as when “Sonia” weaves the story of a failed relationship around a more abstract disquisition on slavery without clarifying why both topics belong in the same song, but even then she creates a sense of felling trapped by historical memory, especially when it surfaces incoherently; it lingers.

Although such an ambitious, allusive project risks the prospect of Woods’s own work suffering by comparison with the legacy it addresses, she’s solved a common problem that besets artists attempting to construct community — she makes community explicit in the music.

She doesn’t allow you to take it as a given that her resilience exists in a context of oppression and political struggle, or that her aim is to depict and celebrate larger groups. Rather, she names those things, gives them formal correlatives, and makes room for other voices — especially when the background singers come together and she harmonizes with multiple versions of herself, or when those versions splinter apart in crosstalk.

Compared to the clarity with which Heavn delineated a sonic environment — part hiding place, part restorative landing, part emotional diagram — Legacy! Legacy! is less sprightly, and occasionally swamped by detail. The difference is the presence of the virtual choir, responding to and challenging her, as a proxy for both her heroes and her audience. Accessing the celebratory spirit inherent in a multiplicity of soul voices, she presents that spirit through refraction — conceptual framing devices, dizzy musical transitions — by way of generous affirmation.

By arguing that all of Woods’s chosen figures belong to the same tradition, Legacy! Legacy! synthesizes threads. Beneath surface complexity, the emotions are simple: celebration, anger, mourning, delight. She’s crafted an argument for the utility and beauty of influence.

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