What does it sound like?:
“Last Century, last week” goes one of the refrains on Blk Girl Soldier, one of the bangers on Ms Woods’ self-penned solo debut – a reference to the plus ça change nature of the black American experience.
Timely, you might think, as events US-side last week did carry so many echoes from the previous century (and the one before that).
Thing is, this album has been around for almost a year. The earlier version was in my AW albums of 2017, as it was downloadable at the time gratis on Soundcloud. Apart from some overdubbed backing vocals and some new noodly guitar work on the title track, this differs only in that it is the official release.
Well that, and the fact that the assorted “interludes” have been given their own separate track numbers – it’s a pet peeve of mine that on so many albums you have to hear the intro/outro every time you experience a tune.
Jamila (pronounced Jam-ee-la – “It’s a long ‘i’ baby!”) is one of a plethora of musicians from Chicago who seem to pop up on one another’s recordings.
Previous collaborators Chance The Rapper and Nico Segal (the man who, until election night, was a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet) are among the guests here. Chance adds a verse to the song LSD (this time, the letters stand for Lake Shore Drive, one of Jamila’s favourite spots in the city. Despite the “Chiraq” epithet, she wants to stand up for her home town:
“I won’t let you criticise my city, like my skin it’s so pretty”).
Nico adds his horn to Breadcrumbs, a song which utilises the old Hansel and Gretel image of the disappearing crumb trail as a metaphor for the memory loss of dementia.
On VRY BLK she evokes childhood again. Its uncompromising lyric is laid over a playground skipping rope style rhyme construction of the sort where the last word of a line becomes the first of the next.
There’s been a tradition of co-opting nursery rhyme lyrics on modern black music. There’s a power in juxtaposing the innocence of the childhood rhyme with deadly adult reality:
“A tisket, a tasket
A brother got his ass kicked
Shot in the face by a cop
and so on.
But you feel JW is tapping into another power of the nursery rhyme or street game chant: the ability to keep an old grievance in the public mind – like the way comfortable computer game generation kids might still be singing about “a pocketful of posies” before falling down.
“Last Century, last week” indeed.
The video for Blk Girl Soldier ties all these ideas together. Woods begins by singing in front of a tableau of significant black female figures from the past, before engaging in a choreographed dance with a couple of the next generation which includes a black power salute.
For all the articulate engagement with the outside world on the likes of Blk Girl Soldier and VRY BLK, the most effecting songs on HEAVN, I think, are the more personal, reflective ones.
Woods’ singing style seems to work best with quieter, more downtempo numbers.
Lately is a simple song about how much she misses her Grandad
The Line “The wind blew the hat from my head – was it you?”
suggests they had some fun together when he was alive,
while Way Up gives you an insight into her introspective, shy persona
“I’m an alien from inner space”, she sings,
“I’d rather spend my day alone on my pillow”.
What does it all *mean*?
In contrast to, for example, the lapel-grabbing unignorability of Beyoncé’s globe-bestriding meisterwerk, there’s a real feeling of toe-in-the-water modesty about this whole record. JW is 27 and it’s been a long road from street poet to collaborator in M&O and guesting on others’ records before you feel she’s found the confidence to stand alone and express herself. But this is a very coherent and appealing beginning.
Goes well with…
The righteous indignation of being a black woman and all the sh*t that comes with that. But if you’re neither black nor a woman, maybe try listening while cooking a Fray Bentos pie.
Might suit people who like…
The obvious reference point is probably Erykah Badu. I have no musical knowledge but I would guess EB’s songs use more jazzy chords while JW is more obviously poppy.