Sunday, 15 December 2019

Heavn - Jamila Woods

Provenance: My partner went to a Jamila Woods show and bought a copy of Heavn. They said that "I might like it", and it's ended up in our shared, monolithic CD collection (only Blue Oyster Cult and Michael Jackson are kept reverentially separate), so here goes.

Review: I'm really not qualified to talk about Heavn at all.

Now, regular readers of this benighted blog will no doubt be wondering why I've only awoken to my almost crippling limitations this far down the line. And it's fair, I don't consider myself a Robert Christgau (nice website mate) or anything of that calibre. I poke and pry, and sometimes alight on the odd insight or two; I tend to be more at home with metal than other genres; heaven forfend that I try and step up to the plate with a jazz review. I would suggest, humbly, that one of my strengths is that I know what I know, and correspondingly I have a fair idea of what I don't know.

So, I know that I don't know enough to appraise Jamila Woods' full-length solo debut Heavn in anything other than the most superficial aesthetic terms. Why? Because unlike the person I am sharing a life with, I have no idea what it's like to be raised as a black woman in America, and this notion of the beating heart of the song cycle. Okay, you might counter, what could I possibly share with the guys in Motley Crue or ZZ Top, or with Tom Waits? My answer - lots of cultural touchstones, a collective musical inheritance (which ironically appropriates tons from black-origin forms) and a society that is happy to propagate the notion that the least amongst us white folk is still better than someone else. And in the USA, that's black people, Latinx, indigenous peoples, queer folk - and good fucking luck if you intersect across any of these designations.

Here goes, then - this is pretty damn great. The production is whipsmart, all wobbly electro-dreamscapes and snappy beats. Woods is a rather lovely singer - sweet and mellifluous, which honeys some incredibly stark messages. Eric Garner's choking at the hands of the police is referenced in 'Vry Blck', a track that sounds like a playground chant, and I'm sure that the dazzling, swirling 'Heavn' slips in a reference to the slave trade with the same sly, allusory quality employed by Randy Newman on 'Sail Away'.

I like the way that Heavn swings between moods; at times it exhibits a playful, wilful strain of juvenilia that's also present on cuts by Tank and the Bangas; at others, there's a dense, layered jazz-tinged soul-pop sound that resembles KING's first album, which I properly loved. Collaborations are judicious, which makes a change; Chance the Rapper, to take one instance, shifts the pace nicely in 'LSD' with a dense, push-pull verse that abuts Woods' sleeker versifying very effectively.

Perhaps even more than the black female experience, however, is how strikingly personal Heavn is. Little nuggets of a life zoomed in at microscopic level shine through every now and again, to the extent that a line like "I be in my nightgown, chicken wings ready" feels both utterly humdrum and utterly voyeuristic. This intimacy is heightened by the spoken-word interludes studded throughout Heavn, which are made to sound as if Woods is talking down a phone line. It genuinely feels like engaging in a conversation, listening to Woods' joy at unexpectedly being able to bond with other black women through shared schoolyard games, or sharing the story of how she got her name, or musing about living a life true to oneself. It's all apiece conceptually with everything else on Heavn, and it's wonderful.

I'm very sorry if I've blundered through the album, missing any number of references that Woods has painstakingly woven into the tapestry of Heavn. For what it's worth, I'm smitten with this cerebral, passionate, reflective, sumptuously crafted offering. It feels apt that Heavn finishes up on a reprise of the most affirming track, 'Holy' - "woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me / I'm not lonely, I'm alone / And I'm holy by my own" - a message of self-love that everybody could do with, from time to time.

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