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Review: The Soul-Rap Revelation of Jamila Woods’ ‘Legacy! Legacy!’

The Chicago r&b poet plumbs black history to locate her personal place in it, with help from Saba, Nitty Scott.

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Chicago r&b poet Jamila Woods generated her first major who is she?! moment beside Chance the Rapper in the “Sunday Candy” video by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment; her LP debut HEAVN answered that question a year later with a personal set of gospel-tinged rap-soul hybrids. Her new Legacy! Legacy! views the personal through a lens of cultural history. Songs are named for giants: “MILES,” “ZORA,” “EARTHA,” “BALDWIN,” “BASQUIAT,” and if the connections aren’t always obvious, they’re always inspired.

Take “ZORA,” which quotes folk singer Malvina Reynolds’ touchstone indictment of lockstep suburban culture “Little Boxes,” and channels the titular Ms. Hurston in 21st-century couplets (“I’m all out of fucks to give/ Fear is no way to live”). Often the connections are less lyrical than musical: the distorted Bitches Brew keyboard tones of “MILES,” the South Side electric blues snarl of “MUDDY.” Sometimes they’re spiritual: “SUN RA” taps into the jazz visionary’s Afro-futurist mindset more than his sound per se. Literary references also suggest sonics: the dubby space-funk of “OCTAVIA,” a channeling of speculative sci-fi master Octavia Butler (“Don’t ever let a textbook scare you/ you the missing piece”), and the smoldering, furious, virtuoso flow of “GIOVANNI” (“a hundred muthafuckas can’t tell me
how i’m posed to look when i’m angry/ how i’m posed to shrink when you’re around me”), Woods’ nod to American poet Nikki Giovanni.

But like The Social Experiment project, as well as her last record, Legacy! Legacy! is about community, about legacies as heritage but also as that which is forged on the ground in the moment. Woods is a teacher and organizer, so it’s not surprising she encourages her guests to shine. Her Windy City neighbor Saba one-ups his HEAVN guest slot with breakneck lines on “BASQUIAT.” And Woods gives Nitty Scott so much room to spit on “SONIA” that she commands the track in a spirit of shared generosity, delivering a relationship pep talk that’s worth group-messaging. “Now i only trust patterns, not apologies/
first date questions: What’s your ideologies?/ Do you love yourself?/
 Are you healing your trauma?/ 
What’s your concept of wealth?
/ Do you check on yo mama?,” she flows, capped with a triple-gainer rhyming “slavery,” “bravery,” and “he unsavory.”

Woods ends the LP in another echo of HEAVN, coming full circle with a buoyant rewind of the opener “BETTY,” flipped from a jazzy downtempo chant into an ecstatic Chicago house celebration: “I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive,” she declares, “I am not your typical girl.” Of course she’s not. But the larger point is that no one is. It’s music to own your truth by.

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