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Jamila Woods - LEGACY! LEGACY! Music Album Reviews

The Chicago artist marries political commentary with deep introspection, resulting in a richly composed R&B album about the echoes of the past and the promise of the future.

When Nina Simone first learned of the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four little girls, her immediate reaction was to try to build a gun in her garage for retaliation. After a cooler head prevailed, thanks to her then-husband/manager, she retreated to the den of her home in Mount Vernon, New York and wrote “Mississippi Goddam.” For the next seven years, the civil rights movement guided her artistic compass, and she became an unwavering voice for oppressed people of color everywhere.


With LEGACY! LEGACY!, Jamila Woods eagerly takes the reins from pioneers like Simone. On Woods’ 2016 debut HEAVN, her acerbic wit was literally child’s play—transposing the clapping game “Miss Mary Mack” for stark lyrics about police brutality on “VRY BLK,” for example. Those kernels have now ripened on her second album, one that is richer and fuller in every respect. Evocative of Mos Def’s landmark album Black on Both Sides, LEGACY! LEGACY! marries incisive political commentary with deep introspection. The result is an album full of wordplay, anger, and wry humor. Woods returns to us a brazen young artist and woman, keenly aware of the backlash she could face for her transparency.

Each track on LEGACY! LEGACY! highlights a legendary artist of color, spanning disciplines, genres, and decades—Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Frida Kahlo, Miles Davis. For Woods, collectively, they become examples of how to unapologetically navigate life as a person of color. Each song’s subject is treated with the same reverence and warmth as Woods’ own ancestors, who are also referenced throughout. While she assumes responsibility for mining sociopolitical issues in her music, she also stands on the shoulders of these figures in search of her own humanity.

Inspired by the life of trailblazing singer Betty Davis, the album’s opener “Betty” begins with just three simple chords on the piano—in walks “Betty Mabry,” quiet and unassuming, a then-23-year-old girl raised in Pittsburgh. When we meet “Mrs. Miles Davis,” Woods injects bold, rhythmic layers into the track, marking her arrival. She served as Davis’ muse, but taking a backseat role was just not for her. Their turbulent union dissolved after just one year, and not long after, the funk goddess emerged onto the scene. Armed with her newfound independence, Davis would go on to break barriers in rock, R&B, and funk, but she never achieved mainstream success and was often criticized for her hypersexuality. As Woods sings on “Betty,” she finds both catharsis and validation for the audacity to be different without compromise: “I am not your typical girl/Throw away that picture in your head,” she declares.

The ways in which black excellence has been continuously jettisoned in America is unending: take Muddy Waters’ first meeting with the Rolling Stones. At the time, Waters was allegedly painting the ceiling of his own record label, Chess, when the British rock stars arrived to record “Satisfaction” during a stop for their first U.S. tour. On “Muddy,” Woods cries out, “They can study my fingers/They can mirror my pose,” over an electric guitar that blares out in protest and anger. She is caught between adoration for her hero, rage over the rampant appropriation of black music, and the understanding that this damage goes beyond repair.

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On “Basquiat,” Woods explores how the behavior of an artist of color unfairly becomes fodder for public opinion. She draws inspiration not just from her own run-ins with the media, but chiefly from an interviewer who once asked the renowned artist “what makes him angry,” suggesting that the “rage” seen in his work could be summoned upon command: “These teeth are not employed/You can’t police my joy.” The song simmers along on a jazzy hip-hop groove for nearly seven minutes, peppered by a staccato call-and-response (“Are you mad?/Yes I’m mad”). Tellingly, the song never erupts, and when Woods sings “They wanna see me angry,” she’s sighing, not shouting. Her exhaustion is palpable, resigned to wear the mask that “grins and lies,” as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar once said—the mask that she must wear to quell the seething rage she feels when asked, once again, to explain herself.

In his landmark 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth,” W.E.B. DuBois argued that the liberation of all black people would come from cultivating a handful of exceptional blacks through higher education. Over a century later, black artists and activists, poets and politicians continue to thrive across a spectrum of different mediums. Almost every predecessor conjured in and in-between Woods’ lyrics balanced their craft alongside an unending fight for total equality, whether they wanted to or not: “All the women in me are tired” becomes a running motif throughout the album. With LEGACY! LEGACY!, Jamila Woods positions herself to join the battle, bridging the gap, once and for all, between our unresolved past and the promise that awaits us all on the horizon.


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