It’s hard to tell if Jamila Woods’ solo debut HEAVN could have (or would have) been made without the renewed scrutiny of America’s deeply entrenched racism that has crystallized in the aftermath of the August 2014 killing of Mike Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. As part of M&O—a duo formed with fellow Chicagoan Owen Hill—Woods released two full-length projects before the phrase “black lives matter” became a national argument, a hash tag, or a movement. The group’s pair of self-released albums—The Joy (2012) and Almost Us (2014)—were softly adventurous mixes of acoustic soul, alternative pop, and folksy hip-hop that gamboled around the subjects of love, art, the art of love, and the love of art.
Listeners of Chance the Rapper and Macklemore might recognize the name Jamila Woods; the Chicagoan’s name graced the credits of the former’s “Sunday Candy” and Coloring Book and the latter’s “White Privilege II”. Those that’ve paid a little closer attention will know too that she puts out her own music. Closer still, they’ll know she’s also a poet and activist.
Originally released as a mixtape last summer HEAVN proved a critical hit, its mix of personal and racial politics transformed Jamila Woods from a place on the edges of the Chicago soul scene into one of the music industry’s most hyped prospects.
As a black poet and activist living in the US today, race is understandably a primary concern though, Wood’s points are often as much about gender, self-empowerment and self-love. The productions – farmed out among her fellow Chicagoans – are a mixed bag musically; occasionally plodding (Lonely Lonely, Emerald Street), though often majestic (the fiery rock-guitar soul of Blk Girl Soldier and the imaginatively programmed pair LSD and Breadcrumbs).
Collectivism in art is kind of bulls**t, no? How many artists have good-naturedly brought their squad with them to the top, only to find that Uncle Kracker was not quite up to his American Bad Ass compatriot or that the rest of the Smell’s beneficiaries were not No Age? And it’s disheartening how many rappers have historically overstayed their welcome with a bad crew album. (Maybe Odd Future got compared to Wu-Tang just for having more than three members anyone cared about. ) Whatever you think of Kanye in 2016, it’s a good thing that we’re shifting away from pop’s umbrella model of a demigod-plus-underlings; Desiigner’s chart-topping reign is looking short-lived while Chicago’s more subtly bankable SaveMoney collective puts down roots for the foreseeable future.