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Jamila Woods’ shape-shifting soul is reverent and referential

The Chicago singer/poet crafts a stunner with LEGACY! LEGACY!
Photo: Bradley Murray

By Jeff Terich

On “Heavn,” the title track to Chicago poet, singer, and songwriter Jamila Woods’ 2016 debut album, she opens with a familiar line: “Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick.” Those of us who remember the ’80s (for the most part) instantly recognize it as also being the opening line of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” a goth-pop hit from a different place, time, and genre. But Woods uses that reference as a way to explore something more personal—the idea of love as a form of comfort amid chaos—turning “Just Like Heaven” upside-down, in a manner of speaking; that song ends somewhat ominously, in spite of the romantic underpinnings. “Heavn,” meanwhile, holds on to hope while acknowledging darkness. Elsewhere on the album she nods to gospel standards and nursery rhymes, even Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Jamila Woods’ music is rife with cultural references and callbacks, footnotes and allusion. But she isn’t just transparent about her influences and her heroes. She honors them and interacts with them in ways that do their legacy more than justice; they actually give a greater insight into Woods herself. Her new album is titled LEGACY! LEGACY!, and through its 13 tracks, Woods explores different artists of color from the 20th century, from James Baldwin to Eartha Kitt, taking a different viewpoint with the introduction of each icon. Yet it’s not a tribute album, not as we came to know them in the ’90s (ska bands covering Duran Duran?!). She personifies these 12 cultural giants (“Betty,” in reference to ’70s funk artist Betty Davis, appears twice) and gives their work and influence new life.

Sometimes the connections are more direct; “MUDDY” employs a fiery psychedelic-blues sound similar to that of Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud album, and quotes some of his most memorable turns of phrase (e.g., “Motherfuckers won’t shut up”). Likewise “MILES” has a hypnotic keyboard pattern in the vein of Miles Davis’s ’70s electric period, as well as a defiance that characterized the jazz giant: “I do what I do—not for you.” Sometimes the homages are less obvious; “BASQUIAT” is a gorgeous meditation on the expectations and projections put on black artists, with a nod to an interview in which Jean-Michel Basquiat evasively gives a non-answer to why he’s angry. Though the response is telling—even being asked “Why are you angry?” is cause for frustration.

All of the figures on LEGACY! LEGACY! have two things in common—they’ve made immense contributions to American art, and they all endured great struggles. And while there’s a sociopolitical component to these songs, there’s also a lot of warmth and care in them; Woods clearly has great affection for the artists that she communicates with through her songs, and it makes them a joy to listen to. An album of this scope is ambitious, to say the least, but what shines through in the end is Woods’ own innovative and stunning songwriting, paying her heroes’ contributions forward by creating her own musical masterpiece.

Jamila Woods

The Casbah

June 18

Other Recommended Shows This Week:   

Tulengua (June 13, Del Mar Fairgrounds): Tulengua’s members hail from both sides of the US-Mexico border, and as you might expect from the play on words in their name, they also perform in both English and Spanish. They’re a unique hip-hop act that crosses borders and genres, and they’re one of the most interesting groups making music in San Diego right now.

Operators (June 14, The Casbah): Canadian indie rock group Wolf Parade is seemingly the band that launched 1,000 other bands, with members having splintered off into acts like Moonface, Sunset Rubdown, Handsome Furs, Divine Fits, Swan Lake, and who knows how many others I forgot. Operators, vocalist Dan Boeckner’s synth-based project, is another one to add to the list, and it’s one well worth checking out, with outstanding pop songs rich in pulsing beats and catchy pop melodies.

Lucinda Williams (June 17, Belly Up): For over three decades, Lucinda Williams has been making ragged, earnest roots rock with a bit of country twang. Last year her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road celebrated its 20th anniversary, and it remains one of the best sets of songs that Americana has to offer.

Jamila Woods’ shape-shifting soul is reverent and referential

Photo: Bradley Murray

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