Over the past few years, the great American city of Chicago has churned out a whole bunch of visionary artists working, generally, within the hip-hop/soul/R&B side of music. Most visible (by far) is Chance the Rapper, but there’s also Vic Mensa, Noname, Saba, Mick Jenkins, Smino, and many more. All of these folks have put out excellent records; Chance’s Acid Rap and Coloring Book, Noname’s Telefone, and Saba’s Bucket List Project are especially rewarding. But the very best album to come out of Chicago in recent years is called HEAVN, by next-level soul singer/songwriter and Second City goddess Jamila Woods.
Originally self-released online, HEAVN is an immersive collection of pillowy arrangements, sparkling pianos, playground melodies, hip-hop rhythms, clever interpolations (of the Cure and Paula Cole, among others), vibrant jazz, spoken-word snippets, and a beautiful, bottomless pool of Black girl magic. It’s a cool and cohesive artistic statement, confident in its perspective and deeply rooted in the human experience.
At the center of it all is Woods, who moves through HEAVN with a perfect balance of grit and grace, claiming her name, her upbringing, her ancestors, and her future while touching on spirituality, self-preservation, and the sobering realities of being Black in Chicago in 2017. “I won’t let you criticize/My city like my skin, it’s so pretty,” she sings in “LSD,” featuring longtime collaborator Chance. “If you don’t like it, just leave it alone.”