The album, LEGACY! LEGACY! Is available via:
10th May, 2019
THIS time around...
I get to review an artist that I am fairly new to. Jamila Woods is definitely getting people talking right now and her new album, LEGACY! LEGACY! demands attention. It is a gorgeous piece of work that conveys plenty of important messages and memorable moments. I shall come to that later but, when thinking about her, I wanted to address female artists in music and, once more, how they are dominating and warrant more acclaim; Neo-Soul and R&B blends and how it is much more favourable to Pop and other genres; artists who have something important to say and have this leadership quality to them; those who come from a hard background or have a history that provokes sensational music – I will end by speaking about Jamila Woods and where she might head next. I have talked a lot about female artists and how they have been storming 2019. It is no surprise to see yet another artist, Jamila Woods, do so well and get under the critical skin. Although the year is still quite young, there have not been that many great albums released by men. I guess there is chance for a comeback but the majority of the truly memorable albums have been released by women. This is not a new phenomenon but I think this year is especially strong. Maybe it is a reaction against inequality and a real show of strength. Perhaps it is something else but there are so many fantastic albums out there that beggar belief and stand in the mind. One wonders how long sexism can continue and whether there will be the same sort of equality in a couple of years as there is now. I hope not but it is troubling that, despite these fantastic albums by great women, there is imbalance and a lack of opportunities. I get a little fed up having to have the same debates and asking when change will come. Artists like Woods will turn the tide and are showing just how strong female artists are.
PHOTO CREDIT: Whitney Middleton
Whilst the facts are out there and we can see how many incredible female-made albums have come this year, one has to ask what it is about the music that has resonated. I think deeper, more challenging themes have come out. Men are taking about personal struggles and less commercial avenues but I think women are doing it in a more inventive and bolder fashion. In terms of sonic innovation, I think there is a lot more happening with women and, again, the effect is longer-lasting and more potent. There have been a few good Pop albums released this year but I think, for the most part, the best music is coming from other genres and avenues. The best of today is not necessarily emanating from the mainstream as it did years ago: right now, the finest material is happening away from the spotlight and is a lot stronger than previous years. Maybe I am getting carried away but there have been some sensational albums this year. A lot of the very finest albums have portrayed very strong messages and been very personal. Jamila Woods’ album, LEGACY! LEAGCY! is a stunning record that does deal with personal aspects but it is the richness of the compositions and vocals that get to me. One listens to the album and discovers endless nuance and stunning tracks. It is a remarkable work and, quite rightly, critics have been raving. I do think 2019 is a year where the best albums are being made by women and I do hope that this leads to greater recognition and exposure. Women are still underrepresented at festivals and they are not given the same opportunities as men. I shall move on now but I am observing the very best music coming through and it is being released by women. There is just something more engaging, exciting and stronger that we are not getting from the men. I think 2019 has been a lot stronger than the past few years for variation and strength and I am excited to see what comes before the end of the year.
I have been focusing a lot on genres like Pop and Folk and, whilst they are interesting and have plenty of memorability, it is great to talk about Jamila Woods and her blend of Neo-Soul and R&B. I have raved about Grime and Rap but, to be truthful, I tend to find I am struck by an artist when I first review that type of music and then it sort of fades and seems less spectacular after a bit of time. Maybe it is the aggression of the genres or something in the lyrics that fails to keep me hooked. When it comes to something smoother – with a definite edge to it – I go back time and time again. Woods is not someone who talks about love and does not stray from that. In fact, her music covers a gamut of emotions and experiences. Each track on her album references a historical figure and is a great testimony to black artists. There is a lot of history in the bones of the songs; a look at modern realities and joys. There is a mix of Norther Soul and Neo-Soul; a patchwork of different sounds that makes the album hugely enjoyable, unpredictable and exciting. Whilst there are songs that tackle black rights and roots, not everything on LEGACY! LEGACY! is heavy and serious. When she sings about her relatives and the plight of the black population of America, there is plenty of light, love and sensuality.
PHOTO CREDIT: Bradley Murray
It would be perfectly fine and wonderful is Woods created an album that was all serious and did open our eyes but I think she has produced something more powerful because of the way she combines hard-hitting songs with lighter, more accessible turns. Critics have been raving about her album and, quite rightly, it is being tipped (already) as one of the year’s very best. I love what she is doing and where she is right now. One can look at fellow artists like Solange (Knowles) and how they are documenting the state of America and the way the black community are treated. Woods digs deep into her sonic treasure chest and brings together all these wonderful sounds. I feel the best albums of this year have displayed plenty of confidence when it comes to compositions and movement. So many artists rely on quick and simple sounds because they think that is the way to get a song into the head – it will fade as quickly as it arrived, I find. Those, like Woods, who push limits and open their imaginations are going to stand the test of time and you find yourself revisiting their songs time and time again.
PHOTO CREDIT: Lawrence Agyei
Maybe it is the words themselves that make the biggest impact but I find the genres Woods has fused gives the songs extra relevance and power. If she were to stick with a single sound then I do not think the album would have as much depth and wonder. Instead, we have this rich bouquet that seems to dip into the history of music and splices so many unique threads together. Woods manages to do all of this without losing any focus or relevance. Every song, as I say, name-checks an important historical figure and the songs are so fulsome and stirring. You are given this very personal experience and feel but Woods is speaking for others and giving a voice to those who have been ignored or mistreated. Her lyrics are consistently awe-inspiring and incredible but it is the sounds around the words that add that extra punch. Maybe it is the fact that there are contrasts and clashes that elevate certain songs; maybe there is something else that means the music lingers and stirs the soul. I have been inundated with Pop and genres like that and I do tend to find that it can all get a bit samey after a while. With music like Neo-Soul and R&B, there is much more to be found and it gives me the chance to embrace something a lot richer and exciting. It is hard to put into words just how powerful and important Jamila Woods’ latest album really is. So many are buzzing right now and tipping this future star. She will go on to release so many other albums but, right now, we have a hugely important artist in our midst. I do think that there is a split between the mainstream and the underground that is quite alarming. I am not suggesting the mainstream is devoid of quality but look at artists like Jamila Woods and what she is doing right now. She is not following a template and writing like everyone else. Her music might not be instantly understandable to younger audience but it is the sheer importance of what she is saying that warrants a lot of focus. So much Pop music is built on repetition and very simple lines. I do feel we need to give more props to artists that are priding the quality of music over streaming figures and marketing. Woods is a natural leader who can affect change in music.
Maybe it is extreme to say that Woods can affect change and do something terrific in that respect but are politicians in the U.S. doing all they can? LEGACY! LEGACY! documents racial tensions and the struggle of black citizens in the U.S. There are few who can deny the emotions flowing through the album and how strong Woods sounds. She is this artist who knows how hard it has been for her relatives; she has grown up in a poor situation and worked her way to where she is now. Things are not perfect for her and she knows how hard other people struggle. Woods grew up in a family where there was this ethos of teaching and sharing. Woods herself has given a lot back and understands the importance of education. Such a strong and inspiring figure is making changes in people’s lives but I do think that she can make a real difference in the wider world. Maybe it is not as excessive as running for office but, maybe, she could set up a charity or foundation that helps those less fortunate or campaigns for black rights. Perhaps she already has something like that in the works right now but I know Jamila Woods is focused on seeing change and helping others. Before I move to another subject, I want to bring in an interview Woods have with The Guardian a few days ago. She talked about her music and background but it was when her family was mentioned that I got a greater realisation of where Woods came from and why her music sounds like it does.
“Woods grew up in the quiet Chicago neighbourhood of Beverly Hills, an idyllic enclave in a city wracked with inequality. Her dad, a physician, and her mother, a spiritual healer, instilled in her the idea of working for the community; following private schooling and a degree from Brown University, Woods became associate artistic director of Young Chicago Authors, empowering kids to create their own narratives through hip-hop and poetry. She compares poetry to hip-hop’s tradition of sampling from across black musical history. “There’s a similar respect for lineage – you can say you’ve written a poem ‘after Maya Angelou’,” she says.
“Woods describes a mentoring session where she had students draw lineage maps, using the people in their lives who had inspired them to find their own artistic voice. “It’s important for me to shout out those that came before, especially in a time where it’s about being individualistic or the first. That should be seen as a strength, because that’s what legacy is.”
So what is Woods aiming to achieve with her championing of legacy? She wants to break the cycle of silence in families, particularly between grandmothers, mothers and daughters. “When I got to a certain age, conversations with my mom and grandmother changed and there was more honesty. That’s part of breaking the cycle because if I hadn’t have known what they’d experienced with men in their relationships, I wouldn’t be able to recognise that there’s a legacy in those stories. It can’t be an individual decision – there has to be a culture shift and a communal conversation”.
I think the fact Woods is keen to promote legacy and is working in communities that gives her music such authenticity and insight. Other artists might know about struggles in theory and might not know too much about legacy and inspiring the next generation. Woods is actively getting into schools and communities and encouraging conversations and awakening. She is a wonderful artist who wants do more than record music and just put it out there. I love what she is doing and what she can go on to achieve. I think Woods’ music can start dialogue and inspire others in the world. There are musicians who are hearing what she is doing but I think it is her songs’ messages that getting to people like me – who come from very different situations and backgrounds. I do think the very best music can instruct and teach us something. LEGACY! LEGACY! is a terrific record that will go down as one of this year’s best and I do think that Woods deserves festival headline status. This returns me to the subject of women headlining festivals but, having released such a bold and stunning album, I feel organisers need to cast their eyes the way of Jamila Woods.
I will move on very soon but I wanted to spend a little time discussing Jamila Woods and what affect her music has. I have talked about the themes she addresses and, when documenting ZORA, I will go into more depth and detail. The song I am about to explore, actually, was named after the author Zora Neale Hurston. The song tackles the plight of someone like Woods growing up in a predominantly white background; it takes inspiration from Zora Neale Hurston when it comes to defiance and understanding white a white community might feel unfamiliar and disconnected from a black student/person – Woods understands why they might not want to spend time in her company. It is all very emotional and striking but, rather than being depressing and tense, songs like ZORA have heart, wisdom and understanding running through every line. Whereas we have these very gripping and evocative lyrics, the compositions are often quite different. It is these clashes of worlds and contrasts that make Jamila Woods’ music so addictive and different. There are similar artists out there but Woods comes from a different place. Whereas a lot of Pop artists are generic and discuss love in a very routine and cliché way, Woods is not only discussing her own experience (that is like nobody else’s) but she is looking at history and the wider world and raises awareness. I am not best qualified to dig to the roots of LEGACY! LEGACY! but I can understand why it is such an important album and why so many critics are raving. In pure musical terms, I was struck by all the different colours and layers present. Across the thirteen tracks, there is so much to digest and love. Listening to the album is as much about sonic satisfaction and exploration as it is learning and being inspired. It is no wonder that Woods is being elevated and talked about in such passionate terms. She has crafted something truly wonderful and compelling that is unlikely to be topped this year. What she has released is pretty moving and intense at times but it is also hugely accessible. One does not need to be in the same situation as Woods to empathise and relate to what she is saying.
ZORA opens, rather unexpectedly, like a Steely Dan song. It has that same sort of richness and tone to it but, in reality, there is more in common with Neo-Soul. Instead of there being this tension and anger, you get a very colourful, open and spirited introduction that is full of life and energy. It induces smiles and curiosity as you get inside this inviting and exciting sound; one that takes you away and runs straight through the veins. Woods’ voice is distinct and hugely characterful but, in some ways, there is a little nod to powerhouses like Erykah Badu. When singing about “Every classroom” and a “case of chocolate on the moon”, there is this feeling that Woods is not only nodding to her own experience of being quite alien in a school with mostly white faces but how others must feel. The imagery is stunning and unique and one gets a real sense of struggle and tension. Rather than being too aggressive and explicit with the lyrics, Woods is more poetic and oblique. This does not dampen the mood and distil the importance of what she is saying: rather, I find the words are more powerful and we can each have our own view and interpretation. One gets a real feeling that Woods was around a lot of privileged children but did not feel the same as them. Perhaps she was not abused and ostracised but one can imagine there was division and confusion. Imaging being the only one in your class/school that was black or you didn’t fit in at all. That is a scary and isolating experience and, whilst Woods does not seem embittered and scarred, one can imagine she has been affected and this has affected how she rights. The fact she has mentored and taught other children is a way of showing they can overcome adversity and are vital. Whereas the introduction was bursting with colour and pizazz, the composition is cooler and calmer during the verses.
PHOTO CREDIT: Whitney Middleton
It has a coolness and sense of control but there is definitely passion and energy emanating from the strings, percussion and assorted instruments. It is a composition that is the classic Neo-Soul mode and is a perfect accompaniment to Jamila Woods’ stunning voice. Woods conveys so many different emotions and ensures every line gets into the head and can be understood. It seems that, against loneliness and being different, her energy is her biggest weapon. Others might balk and feel squashed by being different but Woods’ infectiousness and sheer force has been the coping mechanism. There is nothing wrong with being different in any situation but it is super-hard when you come from a very different background and how to go through school not being the same as others. Zora Neale Hurston, as the inspiration for this song, crafted and revealed this thought: “You will never know everything/I will never know everything”. This struck Woods and is used as a mantra and defiance. Woods was a black face in a largely white neighbourhood and, even when she was at church with a lot of black faces, she felt like an outsider. Maybe she was misunderstood or did not feel black enough. In any case, it seems that it is impossible to fully understand the multiplicities of a person and, in fact, perhaps not fitting in is okay. When listening to ZORA, one is struck by the feeling that the heroine had to face suppression and confusion but she has gained wisdom from a literary figure who has given guidance. This epiphany is expressed with wordless vocals and a Gospel-like breakdown that is filled with power and uplift.
PHOTO CREDIT: Lawrence Agyei
Woods talks about how nobody is truly free but she is on a new plane. She has heard all the insults and judgements before and is not going to be cowed. It is evident that Woods has had to take a lot of ignorance along the way but she fights back with defiance and resilience. The fact that nobody can know everything about everyone gives her a sense of hope and foundation. The band is so tight throughout ZORA but there is still some room for looseness and experimentation. There is a sense of flow and cool from the Jazz world but the spritz and colourful energy of Neo-Soul; a bit of R&B flair and passion in there as well. One comes away from hearing ZORA and feels completely invigorated and exhausted at the same time. It is a track that has ample spirit and fight but there is sadness and darker past that one cannot ignore. Woods has come from a background where she was different and had to try and find her place. Rather than let things gets to her and defeat her spirit, Woods has created a song that opens eyes and has a very resolute and mature spirit. There are many great moments of LEGACY! LEGACY! but I think ZORA is the standout track. One can happily listen to the song time and time again and you will learn something different every time you encounter it.
I have, I hope, covered all the bases when it comes to Jamila Woods and what makes her music stand out. She is this endlessly compelling person who is sure to conquer the world. I have mentioned how there is a split between the mainstream and artists like Woods who are still growing. I do think we put too much emphasis on what is considered marketable and cool and do not give the same attention to genuinely great artists. Let’s hope that this changes because, as we can see from LEGACY! LEGACY!, one gets more than a few interesting hooks and a predictable chorus. Instead, we are treated to a history listen and a motivational speech. We are witness to personal revelation and spirituality at its peak; a young woman who opens her own heart but opens all of our eyes to the realities of history and how her people have struggled. Each song does nod to an historical figure and sort of takes their messages to heart. There are a few collaborators on Woods’ album but the biggest impact one gets is from her.
A few collaborations add strength and new voices rather than steal focus from the artist herself. I would urge people to go out and buy LEGACY! LEGACY! because it is a vastly important album and one that is full of wonder and life. You will fall for certain songs the first time around but then come to obsess over others the more you listen. Albums like this are very rare and I do feel that Woods is a definite leader in the making. I shall leave things there but I think Woods has a very busy future ahead of her. There will be tour dates in America – keep an eye on her social media feeds for details – and I cannot wait to see where she heads next. She will want her new album to bed-in before thinking about anything new but there are many out there who will watch closely and wonder whether she can top an album as wonderful as LEGACY! LEGACY! It is a sensational thing and shows just what quality there is in music right now. As I said, I think the very best music being made is by women and I do hope there is a greater move towards equality in the coming years. It is people like Jamila Woods who will help bring about change through such wonderful music. If you have not experienced the genius and brilliance of Jamila Woods, make sure you get acquainted with…
PHOTO CREDIT: Lawrence Agyei
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