Chance the Rapper associate and Social Experiment member Jamila Woods’ first album as a solo artist is a statement, and not necessarily a bold one – which may be its underlying strength. HEAVN serves as yet another in a recent string of albums offering their take on the current issues of today, most primarily relating to the recent adversity faced by the black community. While most artists, primarily residing in the hip-hop genre, have adopted a stance of anger – which is very powerful in and of itself – Jamila Woods presents another side. These songs are breezy and fun, very catchy, and accompanied by a message of hope for the future, and embracing and loving all aspects of her identity: her skin, her name, her hometown, all of these elements are addressed on HEAVN.
“LSD” is a celebration of home, stating that any potential suitors will need to love her as much as she loves Lake Michigan, and in the most beautiful and instantly catchy vocal line on the album Woods states “Woke up this morning with a mind set on loving me” (“Holy”). And really, what other protest album interpolates the theme song of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood (“Emerald St.”)? Stocking the project with subject material like serves as a contrast to the moment when Woods finally gets extremely explicit about the centuries of injustice her people have faced on “BLK Girl Soldier”. As her voice still floats effortlessly over the track as if she were at a camp singalong with her closest friends, the dark world she paints of death and lynching is much more vivid and attention grabbing.
This voice, breathy and yet extremely powerful, is another of the appeals of the project, presenting its silky smooth qualities overtop of Chicago-style hip-hop and R&B dance beats. Many of Chance the Rapper’s frequent collaborators and associates, including Chance himself, show up over the course of the album and all do an amazing job, whether on featured vocals or production. This has become such a tight-knit group that is capable of creating quality music together extremely consistently. And while Donnie Trumpet, leader of the Social Experiment band, does show up on “Breadcrumbs” to showcase Woods’ voice over typical SoX production (which still works very well for me anyway), the rest of the album’s sound is not derivative at all despite working with these frequent collaborators.
Production is handled mainly by Peter Cottontale, oddCOUPLE, and Saba, who turns in a great verse himself. Lush and bouncy R&B instrumentals are abundant, but most interesting to me were the elements of acoustic guitars to accompany the jazzy Chicago sound. With Woods’ background as a poet reflecting in her lyrics over minimal production, it can come across like updated and modern folk music. Woods’ vocal performance showcases what are almost elements of classical and traditional R&B sounds: simple but effective melodies, beautiful harmonies, choruses and major melody lines that aren’t much more than improvised scat solos, and songs which skew to the shorter side in length. Everything coming from Chance’s camp right now just sounds incredibly joyful, celebrating the power of music.
Woods, Chance and the rest of the Social Experiment in the “Sunday Candy” Video
Not only is the music exceptional, this is a quite conceptual album as well, tied together by what sounds like phone conversations where Woods speaks on a variety of topics, mainly regarding pride in her identity. HEAVN opens with vocals clearly meant to sound angelic on intro “Bubbles”, and the theme of heaven does continue to resurface, but the main concept is what she speaks of in these interludes. As one of her song titles states, she is “VERY BLK”. A favourite of these is how she tells a story of how she connected with other black women she did not know while at work because they all knew the same childhood game and playground rhyme, which they then recited together and confused onlookers, calling it her “secret”. Another interesting anecdote depicts her mother’s story of how Woods, then unborn, came to her in a dream and told her what her name was, giving Woods the impression that she named herself, and giving her a personal affinity for her own name. This interlude introduces the song “In My Name”, showing that the interludes do string the songs together to tell somewhat of a story.
Despite all the injustice in the world, Woods states “What else can we do but move forward?” on the interlude which brings “LSD” to a close. Even for someone like me who admittedly could not be further removed from the situation, this is very affirming and uplifting material. It is fantastic to hear such positivity while delivering the same essential message in the wake of so many songs filled with anger. This may be the album that 2016 really needs.
Favourite Tracks: Holy, LSD, VERY BLK, Way Up, BLK Girl Soldier
Least Favourite Track: Lately