Jamila Woods Bravely Explores the Tributaries of Selfhood on 'Water Made Us'

BY Safiya HopfePublished Oct 11, 2023

In a her 1995 essay "The Site of Memory,"  Toni Morrisson spoke about the memory of water.  "You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places," she wrote. "To make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. 'Floods' is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was."

This sentiment of self-remembrance and interconnectedness — alluded to in the very title of the record — reverberates throughout Water Made Us, the first album from Chicago's Jamila Woods since 2019's LEGACY! LEGACY!. Confronted with her interiority during pandemic lockdown, Woods began a process of intensive self-reflection and spiritual discovery. This period of isolation — during which she challenged herself to write as many songs as possible — made her realize just how shaped she is by everyone outside of her. Having slowed down enough to patiently behold the patterns of her inner dialogue, she began writing in unprecedented quantities, head-on, about the thing she realized she is always, in a sense, writing about: love.

In the densely poetic and sonically diverse result, she takes her time — seventeen tracks, to be exact, indulging multiple genres and featuring excerpts of conversation with friends, family and a trusted reader of tarot and the stars — to meditate on the waters of her relational urges, from the primordial to the petty.

Shaped to emulate the trajectory of a relationship, the album ruminates on everything the risk of loving entails: curiosity, resentment, the loneliness of loss, the strain which precedes surrender, the weight of memory and the lifelong process of learning to trust not only others but oneself. "It's not butterflies and fireworks," she sings on "Tiny Garden." "It's gonna be a tiny garden/ But I feed it everyday." 

Water Made Us, which features performances from Saba, duendita, and Peter CottonTale, shifts from soulful R&B to acoustic folk, from auto-tuned dream-pop to pure hip hop. "Wolfsheep" is a strummed ballad, while "Boomerang" adopts a bedroom-pop groove. At first glance, the record may read as a scattered amalgamation of journalled revelations, but measured by the careful consolidation of its many tiny details, it may be Woods's most intentional, fleshed-out project to date.

LEGACY! LEGACY! saw Woods dancing on the shoulders of the giants after which she titled her songs, ranging from Betty Davis to Jean-Michel Basquiat, and channeling their strength. Water Made Us, on the other hand, sees her soften. While the fiery LEGACY! LEGACY! celebrated discernment, confidence and self-preservation, Water Made Us is wet, and revels in vulnerability and permeability.

"Why not have pleasure? (...) Love is the warmest weather," she sings on opener "Bugs." "Someone will break your tiny little rules," she admits in a poetic interlude mid-song. On Water Made Us, Woods is still self-assured, but she's also sinking her teeth (which are still "not employed," by the way) into the inevitability of not-knowing, and the necessity of opening up. "Someone will jump fully clothed into the moat you dug outside," she continues on "Bugs." "It's not that deep." 

Released a week after her birthday, Water Made Us is a true libra, holding Woods's porous, chameleon-like nature — "So many women in me," she sang years ago on "BASQUIAT" — with playful reverence. Water Made Us also holds space for her various creative selves, sometimes even on the same song. "Wreckage Room," for example, begins with a lo-fi twinkling of keys under a heavy veil of static, over which Woods's distorted voice hums like a warning. Then, a minute into the track, the instrumental backdrop clarifies and her voice soars, as if from a different body entirely, building layer by layer to a revelatory finale that sharply juxtaposes the autotuned first verses. 

On "Practice," she luxuriates, meditating on the act of slowing down as not only a gift but a delicious inevitability. "Still" sees her chase her own tail in the ritual spiral of letting go, while "I Miss All My Exes," sung with the measured grace of hindsight, is a monumental ode to everyone she's bid goodbye despite being unable to abandon what they've given her. In voice recordings that punctuate the record's unfolding, her psychic holds space for her, her great uncle speaks of the old days, and her friend giggles about how confounding it is to try and trust your gut. 

Perhaps most importantly, Water Made Us sees Woods give herself more room than ever. Instead of framing her story through the narratives of her predecessors — as she did quite literally on LEGACY! LEGACY! — or through broader social context, she turns to herself and toward the domestic realm, carefully traversing the waters of her inner world. Centered in this self-awareness, a myriad of possibilities emerge. 

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