Jamila Woods 'Legacy! Legacy!" Jamila Woods 'Legacy! Legacy!"
Bradley Murray

Jamila Woods Resurrects Legends On ‘Legacy! Legacy!’

Three years ago, Jamila Woods entered the scene as a woman grounded in her self-hood on her debut HEAVN. The album is a memoir of her upbringing on Chicago’s South Side and her introspections are comfort food for anyone on a search for their center. She digs up memories such as pride in games she played growing up on “Popsicle (Interlude)” and runs down why she’s worthy of all good things on the healing self-love anthem “Holy.” The sound is dripped deeply in neo-soul and hip-hop, in the family of her Chicago peers Saba, NoName, and Chance the Rapper.

Now the 29-year-old returns evermore enchanting on her sophomore effort, Legacy! Legacy! This time, the singer-songwriter puts herself in direct lineage with legendary black artists, writers, poets, and musicians by naming each of the project’s tracks after them. Woods was inspired by these heroes on her journey as an artist, published poet and community organizer. But she’s not simply riding on the shoulders of these legends. She’s using lyricism and storytelling to resurrect them as if they were to speak to us today.

“I thought of it not so much as writing songs about these people, but thinking of the songs as self-portraits,” she explained to Pitchfork in an interview. “I was looking through the lenses of these different people, their work, things they said.”

The result is 13 tracks of her soothing lullaby, free-flowing melodies, and sing-songy raps of gratitude for each of the lessons she learned from these greats.

There is “Betty” dedicated to Betty Davis, an unsung funk musician whose empowered spirit was ahead of her time and caused her to be shunned from the spotlight. Davis was also married to jazz pioneer Miles Davis, who she influenced in the latter part of his career. The marriage ended in a rocky divorce and Jamila considers whether this hindered Betty’s success by flipping her story into a song about guarding her light around toxic masculinity and men who could interrupt her growth. “Let me be, I'm trying to fly, you insist on clipping my wings,” she sings over the piano-led track, produced by Chicago producer OddCouple.

Woods continues to explore relationships on “Frida,” a funky boom-bap number produced by Chicago-based Slot-A, who produces most of the album. The track draws inspiration from the Mexican icon Frida Kahlo’s relationship with Diego Rivera. The couple lived in separate homes connected by a bridge while they were together. Woods uses this as a symbol for maintaining your own space to find self, whatever that may look like, even when you’re in a partnership. “Multiply my sides, I need a lot of area/A savior is not what I'm seeking/I'm god enough and you be believing,” she commands.

Although Woods shines on her own tracks, one standout feature is Brooklyn emcee (and current touring mate) Nitty Scott on “Sonia.” The track is inspired by a poem written by Black Arts movement poet Sonia Sanchez in the voice of an enslaved black woman who was finding power in detailing the trauma of her condition. Similarly, Scott lays out all her experiences with toxic relationships on a verse that should be studied by all young woman as a relationship manual. “All the women in me are tired/Listen, ni**a/My abuela ain't survive several trips around the sun/So I could give it to somebody's undeserving son,” Scott quips. Woods also describes finding clarity on relationship issues after talking them out with her mother, grandmother, and cousin. “I knew I could do it 'cause if my blood went through it/I knew I could endure it, I knew that I could heal it,” she croons.

When she’s not breaking down the personal, Woods takes on race politics. On the gritty “Miles” dedicated to the aforementioned Davis, Woods embodies his rebellious attitude toward racism. “You could make me tap dance, shake hands, yes ma'am/ But I'm a free man now,” she flexes on the track’s first verse. The song also tells of a man who took the oppression he faced and poured it into mastering his musicianship. Davis talks about this in a 1962 Playboy interview, where he explained that when he was in high school he knew he was the best trumpeter in music class, but all the white students would win the first prizes in contests. “It made me so mad I made up my mind to outdo anybody white on my horn,” he recalls. “If I hadn't met that prejudice, I probably wouldn't have had as much drive in my work.” Davis went on to become one of the most influential jazz artists in the world. Woods calls on that pride he had in his genius, as she references Davis’s 1950 album Birth of Cool on several lines, including, “You can't fake the cool/I could do it in my sleep.”

The spacey-electronic “Octavia” echoes the late science fiction author’s notable ability to manifest her success through journaling. Butler was one of the most prominent black women to write in a mostly white and male-dominated genre, publishing dozens of books, and was the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, among other awards. During Butler’s rise, she wrote out her goals in a series of affirmations that were put on display in an exhibit called “Octavia Butler: Telling My Stories” at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California in 2017. One of the notes read, “My books will be read by millions of people! I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood!” On the chorus, Jamila borrows one stunning line from her notes: “I write it down, it happens next/So be it, see to it.”

Woods talks candidly to white Americans about their privilege and how it blinds them from reality on “Baldwin” in the same way James Baldwin did in his writings. Baldwin once wrote in a 1962 essay in The New Yorker: “Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure. And it is clear that white Americans are not simply unwilling to effect these changes; they are, in the main, so slothful have they become, unable even to envision them.” Woods keeps the same energy when grieving about gentrification — which is now a fabric of life in most American cities — and the stress it can bring black natives of big cities. “You could change a hood just by showing your face / Condo climbing high, now the block is erased / (You don't get it, get it),” she spits.

On Legacy! Legacy!, Woods took her ability to paint her rage with social conditions and complex emotions within intimate relationships to the next level, solidifying her as a modern day griot. Yes, this album on the surface is inspired by historical figures but, as promised, the songs aren’t simply biographies about their accomplishments. Woods studied what made each of these individuals human and transformed those insights into a cohesive oral history that connects the past to the present. It’s not an album to be digested in one sitting. She is inviting us to join her in remembering these legends more deeply beyond social media posts that dilute their legacies to soundbites, photos and quote posts on their birthdays. The eras from which these icons rose to prominence passed, but the lessons they offer are timeless. Count on Woods to keep them alive and make sure they’re told.

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Lil Wayne attends his "Funeral" album release party on February 01, 2020 in Miami, Florida.
Photo by Jeff Schear

Lil Wayne Is Comfortable Post-Comeback On ‘Funeral’

Everybody loves a good comeback story. But once that story ends, after you’ve made the grand comeback, then you’re just back. You end up on the first week of The Masked Singer in a robot costume to sell your latest album. It’s a career phase that plenty of rock stars have settled into, and now a generation of superstar rappers is experiencing it as well.

You know how every few years, Bruce Springsteen puts out a new album, and Rolling Stone gives it five stars? A lot of your friends will check it out, but way more of them will go see him next time he tours, because he’s Bruce? That’s the level of comfort Lil Wayne deserves, after enduring contract disputes, legal troubles, and health issues while remaking popular music in his image.

The rapper born Dwayne Carter endured a five-year gap between studio albums following 2013’s I Am Not A Human Being II, possibly due to disputes with his record label. He even released the Tidal exclusive Free Weezy Album in 2015. Following a few mixtapes and false starts, Tha Carter V was finally released in September 2018, debuting atop the Billboard 200 thanks to an adoring public.

A little over a year later, Wayne is back again with Funeral, released Friday, January 31. Funeral  is not Wayne’s best work, and it’s a mixed bag at 24 tracks. But the album shows Wayne still capable of great bars and rapping with the same enthusiasm he’s shown off since he was 17 years old, rapping about dodging police on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Wayne can still deliver great verses when he’s on. “I live the American dream / Foreign everything,” he yelps on “Dreams.” On “Mahogany,” he wraps around repetition of the title phrase like producers Mannie Fresh and Sarcastic Sounds chopping up Eryn Allen Kane’s vocals: “Mahogany sand, boy, I start a sand storm / Mahogany skin, touch me, I cut your hands off.” On “Line Em Up,” he raps “Pistol whip you 'til you know the serial number by heart,” a threat that would make Prodigy proud.

The beats on Funeral span styles as well as eras. GQ reports that some beats were made less than a year before release, while the title track’s beat dates back to 2013. “Funeral” begins with drumless melodrama until the second half beat reveals another follower of the Dreams & Nightmares album intro format. The keys and bounce on “Ball Hard” are influenced by the low menace of Memphis beats. “Mama Mia” is built around post-dubstep shrieks from Some Randoms, and Wayne matches the energy with an athletic display of rapping.

On “Clap For Em,” Lil Wayne shouts commands to twerkers over a bounce beat straight from his hometown. Wayne starts the second verse with “Wobble-di-wobble,” a reference to his own verse on Juvenile’s immortal 1998 song “Back That Azz Up”. The line was also included in Big Sean and Nicki Minaj’s 2011 collab “Dance (A$$).” It’s an oddly poignant reminder of Wayne’s longevity, and this allusion reinforces his status as an important figure in the canon of booty-centric rap songs.

Given Wayne’s numerous hits, nothing on Funeral really sounds like a single in the way “Right Above It” or even “Uproar” did. “I Do It,” a collab with the clashing Big Sean and Lil Baby, was dubbed the first “single” via tweet but expect that to change once the streams gravitate towards a favorite.

“Trust Nobody,” the track with an Adam Levine chorus, would have been huge in 2010 as the soundtrack to a Call of Duty commercial. The hook’s fake deep cynical ethos is not far removed from Eminem’s Recovery or Wayne’s own “rock” album Rebirth. Now, it just sounds like a relic, but like Eminem, the anachronism won’t keep Wayne from debuting atop the Billboard 200.

“Wayne’s World” comes close to grating with its obvious Myers and Carvey sample, but the exuberance in their voices works. The track succeeds thanks to the beat by Manny Galvez and Louie Haze; it sounds like a machine ascending at light speed, over huge drums. Hearing Wayne rap “Party time, excellent” is so fun!

Most of the featured rappers accentuate Wayne at his carefree best, including songs with Lil Twist, O.T. Genasis, and Jay Rock. Takeoff sounds fantastic paired with Wayne on “I Don’t Sleep.” The two ping-pong around a P’ierre Bourne-esque beat with nearly audible smiles. “Me without the paper is like Tune without the lean / Or Phil without the rings,” the Migo raps.

2 Chainz appears for a Collegrove reunion on “Know You Know.” Lines like “I’m an ex-drug dealer / Get a rush when the egg sizzle” are enough to boost the song beyond its lazily misogynistic hook.

It’s beyond the scope of one critic, certainly this one in particular, to claim where the line for good taste exists in rap, if indeed it does at all. But the worst lines on the album aren’t just in poor taste; they’re boring, stripped of the jaw-dropping associations that prime Wayne used to generate between breaths.

“Bastard (Satan’s Kid)” shows Wayne adapting to the style of XXXTentacion, an artist he himself influenced, like Earl Sweatshirt with MIKE or Pharrell with Tyler, the Creator, except much worse. Its hook urges mistrust of women with a mean-spirited joke. The bad guy cliches just sound like a surly posturing teenager. XXX appears posthumously on the following track “Get Outta My Head,” and it’s similarly joyless. On “Mama Mia,” Wayne raps “blunt looking Cuban / My eyes look Korean.” It’s not just a racist joke, it’s one that’s been told a thousand times. Wayne’s a better writer than that.

Wayne records constantly, and he narrowed his work down to 72 songs for Mack Maine’s consideration and curation. The Funeral leaks that emerge in the coming weeks will likely include gems that will seem unthinkable to leave off the final project, like Tha Carter V before it. But Lil Wayne’s best work has never been contained by the record label economy. It’s reminiscent of the fiery prolific rapper Sada Baby releasing his New Year’s Day 2020 project on Datpiff.

Knowing that Wayne leaves his tracklists to associates to decide, it’s easy to ponder an auteurist Lil Wayne album, one where the Martian writes to an overarching theme. Wayne takes pride in his ability to stick to the subject in his verses and songs, comparing his early raps to school. “You’d want to be the guy that turns in the best paper, and so I would always try to be the guy who’d stick to the subject the most in my verse because I knew everybody else is about to get on this song and still try to find a way to talk about something they really want to talk about,” he recently told Entertainment Weekly. Could that focus craft a self-important would-be instant classic, maybe condensed into a more manageable package?

But that’s not what Lil Wayne does, and who can fault him with sticking to what he does best, over two decades into his career? Mess with the formula too much and end up with Clapton’s Unplugged or ballet scores by Elvis Costello.  The hard drive dumps direct from Wayne’s brain have been vital to rap music for many years, and we can hope there’s many more in our future. Catch Lil Wayne on tour this summer, where a few of the Funeral tracks will sound great next to all the hits.

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Christopher Polk

Mac Miller's 'Circles' Mirrors What Many Millennials Are Facing

Hip-hop savant Mac Miller’s death in Sept. 2018 shook the music world to pieces, because it was such a startling example of potential cut short after showing so much growth. Artistically, Mac ascended from early perceptions as a vapid frat rapper into a serious, well-rounded musician who offered soulful production, tender vocals, and was ambitious enough to bar up with hip-hop’s best lyricists and serve as a hub for some of Los Angeles’ most talented artists. But a big reason why his music was loved so much was because of his vulnerability: Mac created art that attempted to battle depression and substance abuse, which appear to have eventually taken his life. Swimming, the album he released less than two months before his death, saw him take on those demons face to face – and the new posthumous LP Circles, which  Miller’s family reveals was well into production at the time of his death, was meant to be a “companion” album to its predecessor, with a concept of “Swimming in Circles.” Such a sudden death will always haunt those who loved him, but Circles could give fans closure and healing that Mac seemed to never receive.

Circles embarks where Swimming ends with more exploration of self-discovery, seeking understanding, and working towards becoming a better person. Both records mirror what many millennials are currently facing when it comes to their mental health. Mac Miller was gripping with his desolation, battling his vices and dark thoughts, but pursuing peace and refusing to apologize for his mistakes. Despite knowing how his personal story ends, his honesty and vulnerability prompt you to root for him to make it to the other side. His confusion and frustration, like many millennials, are reflective of feeling defeated by waves of emotions with the understanding of the world as well as ourselves. According to a report released in 2019 by Blue Cross Blue Shield, millennials are seeing their physical and mental health decline faster than Generation X as they age. The report showed that depression found in American millennials increased by 30% between 2014 and 2017. However, unlike previous generations, adults between the ages of 23 to 38 have become open about their struggles with mental health. Mac Miller died at age 26, and Circles showcases his willingness to share his battles.

In a Buzzfeed article, written by Anne Helen Peterson explained how millennials are becoming the “Burnout Generation” from the intense pressure of emulating a life similar to our parents had. This isn’t surprising as many millennials have experienced the 2008 recession. After graduating, many found entry-level positions do not pay a livable wage. The constant news cycle being available to us through our phones, social media, the desperate need for a work/life balance, and the opioid epidemic have all been linked to the deterioration of this generation’s mental health. From the outside, Mac Miller seemed to have everything right – a successful career, the access to do what he’s passionate about, and money –  but his lyrics show that he was also dealing with being burned out like many of us. The most relatable song on the record is the synthy “Complicated,” where Mac laments the constant traffic running through his mind. “I’m way too young to be gettin’ old,” he tragically observes, questioning why he’s dealing with so much daily stress. In the following Disclosure-produced track “Blue World,” Mac honestly raps about the the ups and downs of depression: “think I lost my mind, reality’s so hard to find/when the devil tryna call your line.” Mac Miller was battling his opiate addiction and his breakup with pop star Ariana Grande during the creation of his final two albums, and Circles depicts a man exhausted from his constant hurdles.

The somber tone of Circles blends the jazz-hop of Divine Feminine (“Hand Me Down,” “Good News”), the lo-fi of Swimming (“Woods,” “Once a Day”) and indie rock vibes (“Everybody,” “That’s On Me”), similar to his Tiny Desk performance. “Blue World” and “Surf” are the only songs where you’ll hear Mac rapping, whereas the rest of the album shows his vocal range that sets the mood of his emotions. While the musicality certainly deserves some attribution to producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West), who also worked on Swimming, it’s also a testament to Mac’s own artistic progression over the last ten years. He learned to use a variety of tools by the time of his death, and that was on display here.

The breezing tranquil rhythm of “That’s On Me” is one of the more positive vibes on the album, feeling content with what’s happening. Listening to the lyrics after knowing how this chapter ends is hard. “I don’t know where I’ve been lately, but I’ve been all right/I said good morning this morning and I’ll say goodnight,” Mac says. With the beautiful production and his willful vocals, it makes us know that there was a time where he felt okay through it all.

Millennials are breaking the cycle of other generations that didn’t tend to their emotional and mental needs. Whether it’s through humorous memes on the internet or healing crystals and meditation, they’re finding new ways to develop self-care and improve their health. Circles and Swimming were therapeutic for Mac, a window into his psyche and his therapy sessions to see the multiple layers of who Malcolm could have been. Hopefully, they can help his fans process their pain as well.

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Kevin Mazur

Eminem Reignites His Rage With 'Music to Be Murdered By'

It became easy to hate on Eminem going into the 2010s. Starting with 2009’s Relapse, his first album in five years after taking time off to recover from drug addiction, the Detroit legend’s peerless mic wizardry became increasingly overshadowed by plodding production and below-the-belt potshots at pop stars. Never mind that that album contained some of Em’s most pristine, conceptually-driven bars; to a maturing fan base, the retreads of previous themes and a liberally-employed new accent missed the mark. And though Recovery seemed to be just that for him, culminating in some noteworthy hits like the Rihanna-assisted “Love the Way You Lie,” Marshall Mathers spent the rest of the last decade releasing a series of uninspiring missteps leading up to 2017’s forgettable Revival. Fortunately, Music to Be Murdered By is an ably produced late-career triumph, with some of Eminem’s most poignant and exquisitely crafted lyrics in in recent memory.

What better backdrop for Eminem’s refocused angst than that which is invoked by the shoveled-dirt sounds and an eerie drop—announcing the album’s macabre title—by a Hitchcockian narrator on the intro? From jump, it’s a way of keeping things fresh and thematically consistent for a potentially daunting 20-song stretch. Suddenly those lazy strays by far too many on Rap Twitter at his supposedly lame “skippity be bop de boo” rhyme patterns seem moot when the 8 Mile representative comes off newly enlivened in his grown-man vent, with one of the best openers since Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.” Over woofer-caving bass and a dramatic organ, he spits, “They said that they hated the awake me/I lose the rage, I’m too tame/I get it back, they say I’m too angry.” It’s thrilling to hear him sounding this focused—no funny voices or childish slurs—while defending the humorous and reflective aspects of his legacy and persona.

The former aspect is on display on “Unaccommodating,” his link-up with Young M.A, the first of several well-placed features here. Em’s lighthearted lines—in all their hacked-algorithm complexity—about “getting head like a Pillow Pet” blend unusually well with the Brooklynite’s loose, languid flow. And far from the workmanlike thud of past Slim Shady beats, the song’s hypnotic, bells-driven melody adds some much-needed verve and bounce, helping modernize and stabilize a beloved MC whose verbiage tends toward rigid and caffeinated.

“Cause, see, they call me a menace and if the shoe fits, I'll wear it. But if it don't, then y'all will swallow the truth, grin and bear it” #Renegade #MusicToBeMurderedBy pic.twitter.com/2aIFk2kz8a

— Marshall Mathers (@Eminem) January 23, 2020

But those revitalized hijinks of Em’s soon give way to some of the headier material that one one would expect on such a darkly-themed project. “You Gon’ Learn,” with a guest spot from Royce da 5’9”, is a moving meditation on the inevitability of struggle. Whereas his longtime friend recalls his past with alcoholism, Marshall ruminates on the existential dilemma of being white and poor in a Chocolate City: “Didn't have knots, I was so broke/On my last rock, for my slingshot/Better haul ass, don't be no slow poke/Through the tall grass, run your ass off/Oh no, got your pants caught on the fence post/Getting chased, by them Jackboys.” These sepia-toned snapshots, emboldened by world-weary synths and hard snares, bristle with a fuming blue-collar furor, reminding us once again of Em’s remarkable triumphs over adversity.

But what about those well-crafted bars? Not only does Music to Be Murdered By possess them in spades, it also astoundingly manages to bring the ever-illusive third verse back to the forefront. Its inclusion on “Yah Yah” is obvious, if not expected alongside such heavyweight spitters as Black Thought and, again, Royce da 5’9,” though Em makes it indelible: “And I'm like a spider crawlin' up your spinal column/I'm climbin' all up the sides of the asylum wall/And dive in a pile of Tylenol, you're like a vagina problem/To a diabolical gynecologist tryna ball a fist.” More surprising, however, is “Lock It Up,” a hit waiting to happen, which features Anderson .Paak and a third verse whose heading-spinning quatrain (“Get a whiff of the doctor's medicine/Like sedatives you'll get popped, Excedrin/'Cause you can get it like over the counter/Like I just left the damn concession stand”) seems all the more outstanding amid Dr. Dre’s lucid and infectious guitar stabs.

Less a radio-ready earworm than a morbid monologue, “Darkness” is a tragic narrative in the tradition of “Stan.” In under six minutes, Eminem embodies a deranged shooter, self-medicating backstage with Valium and alcohol before opening fire on his audience then killing himself. The song ends, significantly, with Eminem highlighting gun debate loopholes and playing news clips from the 2017 Mandalay Bay Hotel shooting in Las Vegas as well as the 2019 shooting in Daytona, Ohio among others. This is social commentary with the subtle implication that white male privilege in this country far too often hides an unchecked anxiety, along with the observation that these mass shooters aren't as far from us as we may think. It may fall flat with some listeners since just several songs earlier he makes a punchline out of the deadly bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, but for an artist who has previously likened himself to the Columbine shooters, the song is growth.

A more suitable conduit is the punk-rock-like Stepdad,” where Marshall blows up on his guardian for abusing him and and his mom to the point where “I’m startin’ to think I’m psychotic.” What would otherwise serve as a welcome reprieve, “Those Kinda Nights,” a saccharine ode to hitting up the strip club, with Ed Sheeran on the hook, falls flat. It’s not that we don’t want to hear Shady at his ease; it’s just that with such a formulaic setup (not to mention a clunky line about D12 member Bizarre and a lap dance—something no one really ever needs to visualize, no disrespect), it dissipates some of the album’s bullet-point intensity.

That eye-of-the-tiger ferocity is, thankfully, flexed on “Little Engine,” which revisits the zany worldview introduced on his debut some 20 years ago with bars like, “I'm still the one that your parents hate/I’m in your house eatin' carrot-cake/While I sit there and wait and I marinate/I'm irritated, you 'bout to meet a scary fate/And come home to find yourself starin' straight into a fuckin' barrel like Sharon Tate.” Elsewhere, “Marsh” mines a similarly combative mode while showcasing more breathtaking internal rhymes: “A pad and pen'll be great, but a napkin'll do/Return of the whack sicko/Head spinnin' like Invisibl Skratch Piklz/Yeah, Shady's back, see the bat signal.”

But it’s “I Will,” which boasts the remaining Slaughterhouse members, that marks his newfound penchant for score settling. Here, instead of coming for R&B songstresses who are for the most part defenseless against him, Eminem trains his sights, finally, on someone who’s fit for the smoke. In a blistering swipe at former Brand Nubian and frequent VladTV affiliate Lord Jamar, he observes: “Yeah, your group was off the chain, but you were the weakest link.” If it seems like presumption to go at one of the culture’s pioneers like that, it’s thanks to a buildup of bad vibes that have long been brewing between the two. It’s a sentiment he echoes in the aforementioned “Lock It Up,” where he addresses the proverbial elephant in the room, regarding Joe Budden’s exit from Slaughterhouse, degradingly referring to the podcast host as “Trader Joe.” Eminem doesn’t merely get mad here; with Music to Be Murdered By, he also gets even.

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