Review Summary: As if straining to generate a formal correlative for her busy network of allusions and stated influences, Woods packs her tunes with seemingly bottomless sonic details.
Jamila Woods' new album poses a lot of big questions, like this one: to what extent can art be considered to be "about" something? In the same manner as vehemently conceptual albums like, I dunno, The Wall
(1979) or American Idiot
(2004), promotional materials and general discourse have promoted LEGACY! LEGACY!
's "about"-ness, its meaning-making based on a particular set of subjects that exist out there in the real world--in this case, the life and work of twelve groundbreaking artists, eleven of them Black and one of them Frida Kahlo.
Remember Pitchfork's 6.5 "pan" of Lizzo's Cuz I Love You
, the review that elicited so much ire from the artist herself that she felt at ease tweeting that “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON'T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED"? The kicker of that review read thus: "An artist’s identity and how it is narrativized are by necessity inextricable from their work, making the task of assessing an album’s merit increasingly layered and complex." Jamila Woods, for her part, is eager to conspicuously integrate--to "narrativize," as Rawiya Kameir would have it--elements of her social upbringing and political orientation into her music. A former theater/Africana studies double major at Brown; a poet; an educator; through it all a proud Black woman, Woods points her audience toward a complex of external references and personal concerns that she presumably considers important outside of the context of her artistic project, even as they form its conceptual backbone. And let's not pretend she's the first in this regard: nominally unrelated artists like the aforementioned Pink Floyd and Green Day aside, one need only think of Mount Eerie's highly acclaimed A Crow Looked at Me
, from two years ago, to remember the potency of a true "concept album," where form seemingly sprouts from an extra-musical set of ideas.
When it comes down to it, in fact, all artists bring outside concerns and references to their musical projects, and critics like myself need to be careful not to admonish minoritized creators for rendering these apparently non- or extra-musical elements explicit. But as Kameir was smart to point out, the question of how these real-world details should inflect our listening and subsequent evaluation is a vexed one. Some art is important or deeply felt but not good; some art is decidedly minor, or even outwardly disturbs our value systems, but, in the final calculation, is good. I don't bring up this conundrum to suggest that the subject matter of LEGACY! LEGACY!
means that the cards are stacked in Woods' favor--as a politically engaged Black woman, she will continue to face greater adversity than I, a white man, can fathom. Yet I can't help but feel that the point is worth making: artistic form, however inflected it may be by an overarching concept, doesn't deliver a message directly to us, because it is incapable of doing so. It is never primarily
"about" something. The experience art provides is categorically different--from politics and from anything else.
This assertion will likely seem opportunistic in the shadow of my dissenting opinion on LEGACY! LEGACY!
, which is that the album is pretty good, rather than very or extremely--dense with fleeting pleasures that don't add up to a satisfying whole. "Dense" is the key word here: as if straining to generate a formal correlative for her busy network of allusions and stated influences, Woods packs her tunes with seemingly bottomless sonic details. Sort of like the Old Hollywood director Howard Hawks, she will begin with a set of easygoing genre signals--airy synths, 808 drum patterns, fuzzy bass ostinatos--and then dial up the aural minutia so that the resulting form is a notch more enveloping than the norm set by genre standards. Opener "BETTY" is a great example of this formula: unleashing a trio of warm piano chords to start things off, the song effectively buries that attractive setup in favor of a bassy and snappy chorus. Unfortunately this move registers as a bit of collateral damage on an overall pleasing track, and the unrelentingly thick production feels like it is sabotaging the song's considerable virtues.
On the other hand, the density of the music and lyrics on display here lends LEGACY! LEGACY!
a metric ton of replay value. I've listened to this album quite a few times, each listen vibrating with a slightly higher level of pleasure, and I don't at all feel as if I've exhausted its power to engage and to teach, perchance to please. Despite my protestations about the singularity of form, I must ultimately recognize that this is a concept album, and the concept is nothing to sneeze at: rather than merely paying lyrical homage to such epochal artists like painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, poet Nikki Giovanni, and guitarist and composer Muddy Waters, Woods admirably attempts to directly enter into their interior world, borrowing words and phrases and creatively filling in the gaps with splashes of her own personality. Certain musical historians might point to 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly
as the flashpoint of this brand of articulating Black history and culture within the aesthetic precepts of what we can broadly call pop music, but I also see traces of activists like filmmaker Cheryl Dunye and academic Saidiya Hartman, who labored to bring the marginalized or outright erased stories of Black people--in particular, Black women--to light, all the while acknowledging the constitutive difficulties of their practice of unearthing that which has been hidden by society. There's nothing to "and yet" about this noble mission.
And yet: only on the masterful seven-minute "BASQUIAT" does Woods' musical practice truly live up to her conceptual ambitions. "BASQUIAT," to be clear, is a stroke of pure genius--from the awesome call-and-response refrain "Are you mad?
Yes I'm mad! What makes you mad?
I don't ***in' know!" to the smothering filter applied to Woods' voice during the first chorus to the startling beat switch-up. This is the rare album centerpiece that is conscious of itself as such and still works
, and it nearly sets the whole album aright. But then doubts set in again. "SUN RA," "OCTAVIA," "BALDWIN": these are all fine tracks, with their own pleasures, but those pleasures are attenuated by the dragginess of Woods' preferred instrumental environments. When all is said and done, LEGACY! LEGACY!
puts the listener in a strange position, straddling the poles of admiration and dissociation: the strength of the concept seemingly emboldens Woods to deprecate her pop songs with a welter of too-damn-much, so that we're left with the difficult task of separating out the album's virtues from its aesthetic pitfalls. Afflicted in the end with a touch of offputting sameyness, LEGACY! LEGACY!
nonetheless has remarkable staying power and a gracious ambition to in some small way materially improve the world of which it is an image. Aesthetic or not, that's worth something.