The missing vowel in the title of HEAVN, the debut album from Chicago singer-songwriter Jamila Woods, opens itself up to tantalising ambiguity. On the one hand, is it intended to be read as "heaven," in keeping with Woods' profound optimism and exploration of innately spiritual styles of black music? Or is it intended to be read "heavin'" representing a struggle and a strain toward peace and self-love?
Its an ambiguity on which Woods' approach to both music and lyrics seems to hinge. Woods intentionally contrasts her doubts with her successes, her blockades with her breakthroughs. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the duo of "Lonely Lonely" and "Holy," which appear at opposite ends of the album, but thematically hold one another, creating an entire arc of meaning. On the former, Woods sings in her rich and willowy voice "I put a post-it note on my mirror so I might love myself," and on the latter, the record's most uplifting song, she sings "Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me."
The efforts to love oneself that Woods explores on the record are heavily informed by aspects of race, gender and class. "VRY BLK" and "Blk Girl Soldier" directly address the status of the black community in the United States. "VRY BLK" in particular is confronting in its nursery rhyme simplicity as Woods sings ""Ask me no more questions, tell me no more lies / Your serving and protecting is stealing babies' lives.". Throughout the record, Woods refuses to be passive, and "Blk Girl Soldier" triumphantly roll-calls the important black women of history.
Occasionally Woods' lyrics can seem slightly clumsy, or her melodies a little slack when they should be taut, but there is a wonderful aspect to the production and compositions that keeps everything afloat. Woods is heavily associated with other Chicago musicians like Donnie Trumpet and Chance the Rapper, both of whom make appearances here, and the colourful, vibrant feeling of the city's current scene shines here. Thick and sometimes urgent grooves taken from hip-hop rub up against gospel uplift, jazz exploration, bossa nova breezes and soulful fervour in beautiful and exciting ways.
Spoken interludes scattered throughout give insight into the unshakable and insightful personality that informs Jamila Woods' music. Her inspiring pride is fierce, awe-inspiring almost. Even when she's cribbing lines from The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" on the brilliant title track, appearing alongside a vibrant personality like Chance the Rapper on the sensual and gorgeous "LSD," or competing with Donnie Trumpet's splatters of brassy joy, Woods never plays second fiddle to anyone. She's a star.
Aside from closer "Way Up," the odd cosmic philosophy of which doesn't quite land, every track on HEAVN adds something to the overarching themes of the record, and announces the arrival of a major talent. At the conclusion of the stunningly self-assured "In My Name," a group of children declare, "We have nothing to lose but our chains." With this album, one can imagine Jamila Woods shrugging off the things that hold her back. Heaven, heavin' - the two are more closely related than they may seem.
HEAVN was self-released last year, but will soon see official release through Inertia Music. The brand new video for "Holy" is available now.