Chicago is on fire. Not the Dick Wolf-NBC show, the music. Chicago has been able to continually produce great records one after the other like the most creative music factory ever. Rap right now basically comes down to the three pillar cities of Atlanta, Top Dawg in LA, and Chicago. With Chicago’s SaveMoney collective extending the spotlight past Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet and Vic Mensa, the “side-kick” features have finally been given their turn to shine: Joey Purp, Noname, theMIND, Towkio, Saba, and now Jamila Woods. Most known for her part on “Sunday Candy” off of Surf by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment or the forgettable “White Privilege II” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Jamila Woods most recently worked with Chance the Rapper yet again on Coloring Book, providing the chorus to “Blessings.”
With a familiar looking cast to back her (Noname, Chance, Donnie, Saba, Nate Fox, etc.), Jamila Woods makes social activism and awareness feel like a party. She combines being socially aware with pop/R&B the best I’ve seen since Erykah Badu or Lauryn Hill. As a poet, activist, singer/songwriter, and Associate Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, Jamila’s lyrics on HEAVN seem not just smart and extremely relevant of the times, but one of the best accounts of what it’s like to live and be a woman of color in America.
On the second track “VRY BLK,” Jamila hits as hard thematically and lyrically as fellow Chicagoan Vic Mensa’s “16 Shots,” while simultaneously producing, as Kris Ex of Pitchfork worded it, “vital, resonant protest music that sounds like a children’s playground.” With lyrics like “hello operator, emergency hotline/If I say that I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk line?” and “your serving and protecting is stealing babies lives,” Jamila is somehow able to use her charm and full-of-life personality to instill the same message as any slam poet, street rapper, or politician. It also helps that her music juxtaposes a weighted message with poppier and more gospel-like choruses akin to tracks like “Finish Line/Drown” or “How Great” off of Chance the Rapper’s latest record.
Throughout the record, Jamila also shares little anecdotes regarding personal stories or inspirations behind some of the songs, and my favorite has to be at the end of “VRY BLK,” when Jamila tells the story of a time at work when her and some of her co-workers relived a childhood nursery-rhyme-game while all of the people who weren’t black looked at them like they were insane. “It was literally like the best inside secret that I felt like I had ever had,” she says: “that’s one of my favorite things about blackness.”
As scary and honest some of the lyrics of “VRY BLK” are, it’s a fitting conclusion to the track that Jamila shows her resilient pride and hope in the face of adversity. At the end of the song “In My Name,” a track about loving her name and the intolerance of those who can’t pronounce it (hint: it’s a long “I”), a group of children echo the phrase, “it is our duty to fight for our freedom… we must love each other and support each other.”
As strong and full of pride as Jamila is, however, she’s still human. HEAVN also shows how lonely and defeated someone can become when something as insignificant as the color of their skin is the reason why their rights and state of being are constantly oppressed. Songs like the Paula Cole borrowing “Lonely Lonely” or the opener “Bubbles” describe a “black girl be in a bubble, floating quietly out of trouble, trouble,” which by the latter half of HEAVN turn into ideas of leaving it all like on “Breadcrumbs,” “Stellar,” or “Way Up” where she says that, “Earth’s getting old/so color me gone.”
But for all the fear and depressive realities, the magic of HEAVN and Jamila’s songwriting is that she never gives up. Depicting herself in the lead single “Blk Girl Soldier,” Jamila says “she scares the gov’ment/Deja Vu of Tubman/We go missing by the hundreds/Ain’t nobody checkin for us/They want us in kitchen/Kill our sons with lynchings/We get loud about it/Oh now we’re the bitches/No no no no no/She don’t give up.” It’s the hardest song on the record in terms of sound, percussion, and lyrical delivery/content, but like on “VRY BLK” or “In My Name,” the message of hope still arises at the end. Jamila mentions Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Sojourner Truth, and Assata Shakur, all powerfully influential women of color that inspire her and her work.
Her greatest inspiration however, much like the rest of her fellow Chicago contemporaries, stems from the city in of itself. On “LSD,” Jamila’s dedicated to her hometown despite such issues of racial inequality shine as true as they do with Chance the Rapper, who provides a guest verse on the track as well: “I shake up some hands on the right block/Block club president, night watch/My niggas was real when the mic dropped/I put ’em in my will like a bike lock.”
There’s something about these Chicago acts that they’re able to bring such light into such dark yet honest subjects. I mean, other than maybe Kendrick Lamar, no one in the game reps their hometown better than Chance, but now we can add Jamila to that list. Through it all, Jamila still stands tall on tracks like “Emerald St.,” borrowing Mister Rodgers’ “It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Like Adam Kivel of Consequence of Sound says, HEAVN “feels like a happy secret” in of itself, much like the workplace scene Jamila describes earlier on “VRY BLK.” With a little hope, love, and the strength to carry on, in the end it’s all going to be alright.