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Jamila Woods Conjures Ghosts

"Legacy! Legacy!" is a revelatory concept album that puts Jamila Woods' voice in conversation with black creators from the past.
Jamila Woods.

Jamila Woods.

As popular culture accelerates, so does the rate at which new music is put out and consumed. New albums now appear on streaming services at the stroke of midnight on a Friday, and are sometimes worn out by the time the next sun rises. As I've grown increasingly aware of how easy it is to fall into the habit of rapid consumption, I've begun working to slow down my listening experience, particularly since certain albums demand that the listener spend time with them in different settings: on headphones, in a car, in the background of some otherwise quiet moment of living.

Jamila Woods released Legacy! Legacy! on May 10th, the follow-up to her stellar 2016 debut album Heavn. The new album is a tightly crafted, soulful journey, distinguished by its lyrical dexterity. In the weeks since the new album came out, I've found myself unable and unwilling to move on from it, finding new delights in each of the album's 13 tracks. The music alone is worth celebration. Woozy horns and relentless percussion and gentle keys—all these musical elements show Woods digging her heels deeper into the musical ground where she finds her roots, seeking unique ways to retro-fit new sounds or update old ones. The album features luminous production from oddCouple, Peter Cottontale, and Slot-A, but Woods is the sonic and spiritual bandleader, and the arrangements keep pushing jazzy bursts and big-band arrangements toward a future that seems just on the horizon.

But the most exciting work of the album is in the concepts that drive it. Each of the songs is named after an artist of color, primarily black artists: "Miles" and "Eartha" and "Giovanni," among others. Just single names, intimating the sense that if you know, you know, and if you don't, you'll either take the trouble of finding out, or move on. Legacy! Legacy! is an album for people who see "Zora" and know exactly who is being summoned. To fully invest in resurrection, it takes more than simply intoning the name of some dead legend. I like an artist to breathe life back into the name, but also to attach historical flourish, narrative, and voice to the name, so that it fills your head and rattles in your imagination. On Legacy! Legacy! Woods does just that.

Woods is an immensely gifted poet, and in all her songwriting, she plays with a fluidity of voices. In each lyric, the viewpoint of the speaker shifts or blends between that of Woods and that of whatever iconic figure the song is named after. In "Giovanni," which leans into the Nikki Giovanni poem "Ego Tripping," Woods builds some of the poem's themes into her own composition: ancestry, belonging, the pursuit of shit-talk to gas oneself up. By the time the song hits the chorus, where Woods sings a repetitive run of words from the poem's subtitle ("there must be a reason why"), you can almost hear the voice of Nikki Giovanni looming in the background, even if you don't know her poetry or voice. On "Sun Ra," Woods mulls various ways of escaping our doomed planet, as Sun Ra dreamed of doing himself. The album succeeds in animating an artistic lineage, one where voices blend into one another and pasts blend into presents, sharpening our view of the future.

Another thing I have been mulling over lately is the idea of black excellence, and the many forms in which it appears before me on the Internet. Often represented by photos and stories of black people who have achieved some seemingly unfathomable success under impossible odds: graduating college, or getting The Job, or buying a home for their parents. All of this is fine, and worthy of celebration. But I also think of my mother, who didn't have The Job, and instead held down A Job. And who came home after long days at that job and loved on her waiting family and then walked up the steps to her room, where she wrote a novel on a typewriter during the nights she wasn't too depressed to take to her art. I think that, too, is excellence, though not as neatly packaged or smoothly told. Excellence is whatever rests on the other side of the hill black people climb repeatedly, and sometimes there is excellence in the climb itself, even if that climb means absorbing microaggressions at a job you don't love because you have a whole dream to support outside of that job.

What I'm realizing that I love most about Legacy! Legacy! is what I have come to love about Jamila Woods. It's her voice. Not just her literal singing voice, but also her writing voice, and how both of them intone the understanding that black excellence is not a rarity; that the stories and names and images anchoring Legacy! Legacy! are part of a larger tapestry, which feels like it could be endless. The album doesn't feel like a definitive map of legacies, so much as a blueprint for how to map and honor those legacies properly. Woods is a great singer, but an even better orator: Her voice holds a story and gives each word the space it needs to flourish. When she sings, a listener can sometimes feel like Woods' voice has been in the background of one's entire life.

In the video of on older Eartha Kitt that everyone kicks around the Internet, her cheekbones are still as pronounced as many would remember them from her glory days on Broadway, and her eyes are still both piercing and inviting. She sips from a metal cup. The wind blows the flowers behind her until those flowers crane their stems toward her face, and the petals tilt upward. A dog barks in the background. In the best part of the clip, Kitt throws her head back and feigns a large, sky-rattling laugh when her interviewer asks whether or not she'd compromise parts of herself if a man came into her life. When the laugh dies down, Kitt repeats a simple, rhetorical question. "Compromise!?!?" she flings. "For what?"

She repeats "For what?" until the phrase grows ever more fierce, more unanswerable. Until it holds the very answer itself. On the hook to the song "Eartha," Jamila Woods sings: "I don't want to compromise / Can we make it through the night?" And what a gift, to have an album as uncompromising as this one. Immovable in its convictions, but still generous. Not demanding a slow and dutiful listen, but asking merely if it can have some more time with you, insisting gently that there is so much legacy and excellence and beauty left to uncover.


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