There's a scene in Kyra D. Gaunt's ethnomusicological study The Games That Black Girls Play, drawn from an 1869 account of a young slave, Clotilda, performing embodied rhymes on a Maryland plantation. Clotilda leads an extemporaneous social dance in a "shrill sing-song voice," one that her peers learn without much lag. Gaunt herself remembers playing "Miss Lucy" in childhood — a game-song that leans on double entendre and sexual and scatological innuendo, propelled by rapid, steady hand-clapping. These childhood rhythms, she writes, share an origin story: "Juba-patting, an embodied practice of hand-clapping, finger-snapping, thigh-and-chest slapping, and foot-stomping accompanied by a rhymed patter known as juba-rhyming, was an improvised nineteenth-century practice shared among slaves of African descent." The games are bodily, their rules of play stored in our more primitive recesses: For many who have since grown up, hearing or seeing black girls engaged in a hand-clap game springs them back to life. Muscle memory can be an inborn defense against the jadedness of adult brains, long after they are organized against play.
HEAVN, the debut album by Chicago's Jamila Woods, will trigger memories of the playful, private insurgency of children — especially if the listener was the kind of child Jamila Woods once was, even further if they grew up where she did. "HEAVN is about black girlhood, about Chicago," Woods says in her introduction to the album, which was released for free via SoundCloud on Monday. Critical theorists have a name for when art causes reactionary arousal in the people that watch, in the bodies that are literally moved: body genre. HEAVN is an album full of moments of sublime body genre. The first occurs on "VRY BLK," a militant ditty with production from Chicago’s oddCouple, wherein Woods rewrites "Miss Lucy" as a rhyme against police violence: "The officers are scheming / To cover up their (ass) / Ask me no more questions," and the choral sequence continues. The effect of this and the album's other references to youth are something other than simple nostalgia. HEAVN swells and contracts around totems of black girlhood and the grace of secret, radical communications. It's become vogue to charge too much work by black male rappers with black radicalism, even as their efforts say nothing of black women. HEAVN lovingly puts the latter on the front lines.
The debris of black girlhood appears intact on HEAVN, newly invigorated. Part of Woods’s project is to argue that black girlhood exists at all, an episode of life separate from womanhood. This is as much a philosophical endeavor as it is a musical one, and Woods gives evidence. The first track, "Bubbles," a meditation on the fluency between play and danger coproduced by Woods’s own sister, places hair bubbles and puddle-jumping next to the "knives in the kitchen." That terse dichotomy has roots in black poetry, from Gwendolyn Brooks to Audre Lorde to June Jordan. Working in a separate medium with the same sensibility, Woods enlists production with subdued shades of Imogen Heap and J Dilla to balance the conceptual.
Woods’s fierce and highly stylized lyricism is known in two tight-knit worlds: poetry and her hometown. Chicago, now a city to which America turns to understand more about itself, regularly shows up on HEAVN, from the producers to the lyrical geography, as on "Emerald Street." A Pushcart Prize nominee and member of the Dark Noise collective, Woods also works as a teacher for Young Chicago Authors, a literary arts organization. Woods studied drama, grew up singing in a church choir, and has made externalized performance elemental to her work. Her verse is written acutely, drawing on the humor of theater and the serpentine tenor of spoken word. There, her work builds kinship with that of Jamaica Kincaid, which intentionally roves left of conventional sentence construction to express the lawlessness of everyday domestic tragedy. (Take Woods’s "Daddy Dozens," a boast about an exhausted father, as a companion to Kincaid’s 1978 short story "Girl.")
Though both stake out territory on HEAVN, Jamila Woods the poet diverges from Jamila Woods the singer: The singer is more sly. On hooks for collaborations with Macklemore, Donnie Trumpet, and her most famous collaborator, Chance the Rapper, Woods has emerged as a secure female conscience. Chance’s verbosity on "Sunday Candy" charms, but it is Woods who controls the aesthetic, who elevates the obvious metaphor of church and sex with a ringing epigram. Inversely, the Chance collaboration on this album, "LSD," has the rapper in Woods’s universe and more artful because of it. Poets economize language and are obsessively sensitive to elisions of sound. "Don’t cut your tongue on my syllables / Bet you need a syllabus to teach you how my vowels sound," Woods warns on "In My Name," a brassy song aimed at ill-mannered men. Woods’s singing voice is clarion and level. Even as she experiments with wordplay and elliptical sound exchanges, Woods privileges clarity of communication, and delivering to black women — sometimes to the point of twee didacticism, like on "Holy."
If Woods overexplains black self-love on HEAVN, it’s because others refuse to understand. Woods repeats that — "but what they don’t understand" — 10 times on the single "Blk Girl Soldier," the best song on HEAVN and the album’s thesis. The song has a humming drive, less inclined to soul, signaling the bubbling of something under the surface. "See, she’s telepathic," Woods offers as a rejoinder to her own frustration. "Déjà vu of Tubman," she sings. Harriet Tubman, of course, communicated messages of revolution to the enslaved using coded language. On HEAVN, Woods is heavily invested in the sanctity of codes and dead letters, in an era when the internet and institutions are either censoring or appropriating black speech. "You always play too much," she sings on "Lately," reclaiming a teasing black women's saying. Woods is a creative tactician of language, the field of her personal liberation.
Formally, HEAVN can qualify as a spoken-word album, a feature that only enhances Woods’s musical finesse. HEAVN is heavily interested in establishing Woods as a knowledgeable solo musician — she reinterprets Stevie Wonder’s "All I Do" on "Breadcrumbs," a song about interstellar travel between the past and a future, and The Cure on the title track. Still, language is the thing. Woods inserts short conversational recordings of herself and her friends as epilogues on many tracks, speaking about this injustice or that heartbreak. The use of language to invoke such girlish insularity in an album that expresses the distress of a nation astonishingly summarizes the difficulty of being black women here. It makes you wish all singers were poets. Poetry used to be responsible for revolutions.