No Album Left Behind: Jamila Woods' LEGACY! LEGACY!

The Chicago artist celebrates her history—and herself—on her excellent sophomore record

Music Reviews Jamila Woods
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No Album Left Behind: Jamila Woods' <i>LEGACY! LEGACY!</i>

Over the course of 2019, Paste has reviewed about 300 albums. Yet, hundreds—if not thousands—of albums have slipped through the cracks. This December, we’re delighted to launch a new series called No Album Left Behind, in which our core team of critics reviews some of their favorite records we may have missed the first time around, looking back at some of the best overlooked releases of 2019.

“I already know what you’re thinking ’bout me,” sings Jamila Woods on LEGACY! LEGACY!’s “BASQUIAT.” But whatever you’re thinking, you’d be wrong. The iconic painter Jean-Michel Basquiat is just one of the dozen artists of color she channels on her sophomore record: Each track on LEGACY! LEGACY! takes its name from one of 12 creative giants—including Betty and Miles Davis, Frida Kahlo, Eartha Kitt, Muddy Waters, Sun Ra and more, simultaneously revealing 12 facets of Woods herself. Already the kind of musician who works across boundaries—the Chicago native is an acclaimed songwriter as well as a widely-published poet, a community organizer and a youth educator—she takes another step forward with her latest record. Like its creator and its subjects, LEGACY! LEGACY! is more than one thing, and as the repeated title suggests, Woods pursues two overlapping projects, telling her own story and those of her creative forebears.

Woods’ 2016 solo debut, HEAVN, was a testament to the grief, resilience and power of black communities in the face of police brutality. On it, Woods melded playground chants, interpolations of Paula Cole, John Denver, Incubus and The Cure, Afrofuturist fantasies of escaping to another planet and tender voicemails from friends to craft her warm but vigilant neo-soul. In some ways, LEGACY! LEGACY! seems like a natural continuation of HEAVN’s themes of lineage and the past as present. On HEAVN highlight “Blk Girl Soldier,” Woods mourns what’s happened to black women “last century, last week,” paying tribute to the women who “taught us how to fight”—Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Angela Y. Davis among them—and calling the bond “telepathic.” Like the seven women she shouts out on “Blk Girl Soldier,” the 12 figures of LEGACY! LEGACY! are celebrated both as individuals and a collective of ancestors. But this time, Woods’ work is more expansive and more intimate. She doesn’t just name her influences but instead speaks of them, with them, after them and as them, with truly telepathic force. Again she emphasizes sampling as a way of making legacy heard, now in the form of her subjects’ words, philosophies and energies.

The songs here are keenly aware that America’s history of inequity has left imprints not only institutional but internal, emotional. On opener “BETTY,” the instrumentation fittingly cuts through the decades, beginning with a simple and timeless piano intro that’s joined by skittering, squawking beats. “These great greats won’t let me lie,” Woods sings, their words both keeping her awake at night and keeping her honest.

One of the record’s hardest-won truths is Woods’ own capacity to be heard and loved: “I used to be afraid of myself / Hung my smile on a shelf,” she shares on “EARTHA.” “BETTY” is a love letter as much to funk pioneer Betty Davis as it is to Woods, and to every black woman told she is too much or not enough. An homage to the woman onetime husband Miles called “too young and wild,” “BETTY” sets the stage with its messages of unconditional self-love and independence. After years of hiding from her own power, Woods is “falling for” herself: “I am different,” she sings, tenderly and defiantly, the words shimmering in a wash of reverb. Her reference is to Davis’ 1974 record, and the 2017 documentary named for it, They Say I’m Different.

Woods has battled to find her own beauty and bravery illuminated in the triumphs of these greatests of greats. It’s a marker of her hard-fought down-to-the-bone confidence that she refuses to fight for your attention or your agreement. HEAVN was unrelentingly cozy and vibrant, even when it took up the worst offenses against black bodies and souls; at first listen, LEGACY! LEGACY!’s dispersed production and coolly-composed vocal delivery might feel a bit flat and washed-out in comparison. Listen a bit closer and it’s clear it’s just a different kind of power: There’s a strength and self-assuredness in Woods’ new resignation. “GIOVANNI,” for one, finds her sounding absolutely unassailable. “Permission denied to rearrange me,” she declares, protected from white racism and “Hotep” misogyny by her grandmother’s prayers, her mother’s love and Nikki Giovanni’s radical poetry. Each poised syllable lays down another brick for her spiritual and psychological fortress, building to a rousing guitar solo.

Just over half the tracks on LEGACY! LEGACY! center the lives and work of female artists, refusing to assent to all the ways women of color are made to feel small. “I’m all out of fucks to give,” Woods proclaims to her unimaginative critics over sparkling, swirling synths on the measured but playful “ZORA,” channeling the ever-original Hurston. On the languid, bouncy “EARTHA,” a tribute to effervescent icon Kitt, a woman who had no interest in compromising with men, Woods’ selfish partner is met with a matter-of-fact “I’m tired of your shit.” “BETTY” lambasts fragile so-called independent men in a nod to Miles’ abuse; “FRIDA,” the one song titled after a nonblack artist, takes inspiration from the bridge that separated Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s houses to assert the importance of making space for oneself in a relationship. Harnessing fairy-tale framing and deceptively lighthearted, sing-song melodies, the exploration of an abusive relationship on “SONIA” harks back to the material on HEAVN, with Nitty Scott’s verse adding an acerbic bite: “My abuela ain’t survive several trips around the sun,” she spits, “so I could give it to somebody’s undeserving son.” Woods repeats the stunningly simple verdict of a character describing her enslavement in a Sonia Sanchez poem—“It was bad”—as she lists all the indignities an abusive male partner put her through. Her point isn’t to compare slavery to a toxic relationship, but to testify to her ancestors’ resilience and thus her own. “My great-great-granny was born a slave,” Woods tells us: a “great great” in her own right who “found liberation before the grave.” Her personal, historical and creative legacies intertwine as she finds hope in the women of her family alongside Betty, Eartha and Sonia.

LEGACY! LEGACY! is about finding strength in your history, but it doesn’t shy away from its ambiguities. After opening her album with “BETTY,” Woods later gives us the suspenseful staccato of “MILES,” a song devoted to Betty’s serially abusive husband. Woods recounts her own abuse on “SONIA”—”I remember saying no to things that happened anyway,” she sings with disarming sweetness—and it’s not lost on her that Miles Davis beat his wives to keep them in line. “That type of energy, his masculine power which he sometimes wielded in fucked-up ways, what does it mean for a Black woman to embody that?” she asks in an interview. While there’s no definitive answer, it’s clear that Miles’ swaggering bravado takes on a different valence coming from her mouth, one that fights for a more equal future. Woods takes inspiration from the trumpeter’s refusal to face and entertain white audiences, as well as his penchant for speaking so quietly in business meetings that executives had to strain to hear—but when she intones, “Shut up, motherfucker / I don’t take requests,” it’s easy to imagine her disdain applies to entitled white audiences or industry higher-ups just as much as it does to any man seeking to control her. She’s “bad like [her] mother,” flanked by a poignant choir of her own voice that recalls every woman artist wanting to be seen on her own terms: “I do what I do / not for you.”

Not only is LEGACY! LEGACY! one of the best albums of the year with its incandescent power and hooks that never stop giving, it achieves the remarkable feat of crafting a cohesive whole out of a dozen disparate stories. “Our black has no imitation,” Woods states on the funky, futuristic “OCTAVIA,” which honors Butler’s sci-fi oeuvre. It’s one of the album’s thesis statements, repeated on the track for Muddy Waters, who could only laugh at the prospect of white kids emulating his greatness. As Woods’ record celebrates, part of what makes blackness so inimitable is that there is no narrow definition, especially when it comes to how black artists choose to exercise their power. The sprawling, jazzy Saba feature “BASQUIAT” is inspired by the artist refusing to explain his anger to a white journalist (“Are you mad? / Yes I’m mad / What make you mad? / I don’t fuckin’ know, you should tell me so, you done done it”); “SUN RA,” a spacey psych-infused ode to the Afrofuturist, meanwhile, admires his unironic allegiance to Saturn. “BETTY (for Boogie),” the album’s closing track, makes one of its few missteps in trying to bring everything full circle: The remix is dedicated to Woods’ hometown house scene, but its placement dampens the effect of its predecessor, “BALDWIN.” The record’s biggest and most buoyant track, it shines with horns from Nico Segal and references to James’ incendiary prose and paradoxical invocations for love in The Fire Next Time.

Fierce, layered and never obvious, LEGACY! LEGACY! reflects its central question back at the listener, no matter your race or nation: What will your legacy be? “You will never know everything / I will never know everything,” Woods admits playfully on “ZORA.” But what we can do is look to the past—and do our best to build a better future.