There are people who raise you up close, and people who raise you from afar. That’s how we build our personal histories: by observing what’s happening around us and learning to maneuver with (or around) it, and by allowing ourselves to dream, taking in art and using it as the foundation of imagination.
On the pointed, twisty, at times gut-punchingly potent “Legacy! Legacy!” Jamila Woods literalizes this tug of war between the hand the world deals and the places one goes in order to envision how things could be different. Each song is a tribute to and celebration of a crucial creative titan: Sun Ra, Eartha Kitt, Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston and more. From each of them, Woods has drawn inspiration and lessons about how to triumph over the challenges of everyday life.
Woods, 29, is from Chicago, and first emerged a few years ago in that city’s poetry scene and as part of a duo, M&O. She began to attract wider notice for her koan-like singing collaborations with Chance the Rapper, on “Sunday Candy” (from his album with Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment), and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, on “White Privilege II.” She followed that with her solo debut album of earthy, politically pointed soul, “Heavn,” in 2016.
“Legacy! Legacy!” is a fully realized follow-up, sure-footed in its blend of what was, what is and what might be. They intersect most strikingly on “Sonia,” a glittery hip-hop-influenced funk song that’s one of this album’s most bracing. “My great, great granny was born a slave/she found liberation before the grave/who you tellin how to behave?“ Woods sings, in a voice that’s so sweet it cuts. The song is about a partner who became a monster, and the strength it took to overcome the trauma he inflicted:
I remember saying no to things that happened anyway
I remember feeling low the mirror took my face away
I couldn’t recognize her
I laid & cried til my
tears washed the kitchen tiles
On the deceptively soothing “Eartha,” Woods stands firm against a system of oppression so casually pervasive it manifests even in the tiny interactions of a romantic relationship. “The curve of your learning that’s my labor, my love,” she says. “Explaining myself again/I could have run a mile instead, I could have twist my ends instead.”