If you weren't up with Jamila Woods before, best of luck trying to find her debut album now. It appears that the R&B artist's amazing HEAVN project, released last year, has vanished from streaming sites of late. It's apparently part of a renewed marketing push and re-introduction for the Chicago creative — touted as one of the Windy City's best kept secrets — who has been riding high on a crest of critical acclaim and grassroots support. Presumably a refreshed HEAVN will be relaunched sometime this year; thanks to high profile appearances on fellow hometown auteur Chance the Rapper's album Coloring Book and single "Blessings" she's been exposed to a wider audience, something that's been overdue. Making her first Toronto appearance on last night (July 21), Woods demonstrated to a cozy but energetic crowd that her rise to wider recognition will bear fruit.
The phrase "black girl magic" — centering around the often unheralded achievements of black women — has gained a lot of online traction in recent months. HEAVN is about "black girlhood," the poet-singer has stated in interviews, and she both lives it and refers to it in her breakout track "Blk Girl Soldier" — delivered live with a soulful urgency. Her approach to music is graceful, strident, enabling. It speaks to mindsets of being alone in a hostile, hard-hearted world, while exploring the mental and emotional ramifications of this reality. As such, she riffs on themes of healing self-care, trumping oppression, laying the boots to inequality. She's not militant but mindful about it; coupled with her calming vocal ability and her soul, rock and pop influences, she has a lot to say, in a loving way.
It's a specificity that serves Woods well: her precise phrasings, revolutionary energy, and impeccable timing from her four-piece backing band put the crowd at ease over the course of a 50-minute set. A short medley of pop covers, bookended in the musical framework of Destiny's Child's "Say My Name" added a breezy vibe to the overall proceedings. But it's tracks like the incisive "LSD" ("Even though you break my heart/ The water's gonna save me") along with the thoughtful "Breadcrumbs" and spiritual "Holy" ("Woke up this morning with my mind/ Set on loving me") that serve as poetic justice, proof that the next time she makes a Canadian appearance, it will be on an even grander scale.