Before it was given a proper showcase on this debut solo album, the voice of Jamila Woods was heard fronting the "adventure soul" of Milo & Otis and supporting tracks by fellow Chicago artists including Chance the Rapper, Saba, Donnie Trumpet, and Kweku Collins. In early 2016, Woods helped close out Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "White Privilege II," courageous enough to assert "Your silence is a luxury" at the pair's overwhelmingly white fan base. Around the time that song came out, Woods released her own "Blk Grl Soldier." A muscular Jus Cuz production served as the backdrop for a characteristically soft and sweetly melodic vocal, rich in pride and fortitude, with substance packed into each line: "Look at what they did to my sisters -- last century, last week/They make her hate her own skin, treat her like a sin/They love how it repeats." Months later, the perseverance anthem appeared smack in the middle of the sanguine HEAVN. On the title song, Woods floats over a rolling groove, quoting the Cure's "Just Like Heaven" and then twisting it a bit, beaming "I don't wanna run away with you/I wanna live our life right here." She later sings "I don't belong here" and "I'm an alien from inner space" in "Way Up," and dreams of leaving this planet in "Stellar," but Woods otherwise isn't one to promote escapism, not when she's sustained by friends, family, and fellow musicians -- including most of the above-mentioned -- who inspired and/or helped create this album. Some moments regard an intimate relationship and independence, occasionally both at once, like when she affirms "Nobody completes me" in "Holy." A larger portion concerns communal matters like survival, resistance, sisterhood, and how to thrive in conditions designed to perpetuate oppression. The resolutely nurturing and buoyant qualities make it easy to miss out on some of the wisdom and stirring lines such as "Grandma loved granddaddy even after he forgot our names," related over Nico Segal's trumpet and the kaleidoscopic swirl of Stereolab's "The Flower Called Nowhere." Originally a digital-only release from Closed Sessions, HEAVN was expanded and reissued a year later by Jagjaguwar, made available on physical formats with a track list that added six interludes and a thick reprise of "Holy." The interludes, especially the one in which children recite an Assata Shakur quote -- inserted as a brilliant setup for "Blk Grl Soldier" -- are not extraneous.
AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman