Jamila Woods’ ‘Water Made Us’ Navigating Relationships with Poetic Precision and Soulful Resonance

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Jamila Woods initially made her mark in the Chicago poetry circuit, publishing her first collection in 2012 and contributing to the organization of Louder Than a Bomb, an annual youth poetry festival. Transitioning from poetry to music, she released her debut album, “HEAVN,” in 2016, earning widespread critical acclaim and establishing herself as a significant voice in neo-soul and R&B. Her 2019 follow-up, “Legacy! Legacy!,” further solidified her position, seamlessly blending profound ideas with inventive melodies.

While her first two albums delved into significant themes such as womanhood, family lineage, slavery, and the Black experience in America, Woods’ third and arguably best album, “Water Made Us,” takes on an even more universal subject: relationships. Approaching this theme with meticulous attention, Woods crafts songs filled with intimate details, tracing the lifecycle of relationships from the boundless beginning to the comfortable middle, the abrupt end, and, crucially, the reflective aftermath. The journey begins with “Bugs,” where Woods grapples with an inner voice urging her to build a “moat” to protect herself from a new suitor. Producer Alissia Beneviste conjures chords reminiscent of butterflies in the stomach. Woods precisely details the self-protective “bugs” that could extinguish a new spark – from physical attributes like “a lotta hair” to behavioral traits like “chew too loud, talk too much.”Woods’ strength as a writer lies in these granular details, lifting material that might otherwise feel cliché. She skillfully produces images and metaphors that ground lofty concepts – budding love becomes a tiny garden, emotional misconnection is a thermostat, and jealousy is a low flame. In “Water Made Us,” Woods turns her gaze directly upon herself, shedding any pretense more than ever before.

The album shines when Woods channels her poetic prowess into warm neo-soul tracks, reminiscent of a 1998 Soulquarians session. The first single, “Tiny Garden,” is a lively ode to the patience needed for a young love: “It’s not gonna be a big production/It’s not butterflies or fireworks/Said it’s gonna be a tiny garden/But I’ll feed it every day.” Co-producer Chris McClenney, who helmed the entire album, envelops Woods’ hopeful lyrics in instrumentation warm enough to thaw her “iceberg heart.” McClenney, alongside longtime collaborator Peter CottonTale and others, maintains a light and buoyant vibe, even on tracks exploring the weightier aspects of relationships.

“Backburner,” addressing past loves, jealousy, and regret, starts with a muted acoustic guitar before incorporating Afrobeat flourishes. Similarly, McClenney and collaborators, including NAO, co-produce “Boomerang,” turning Woods’ doubts about a relationship into an effervescent dance ditty. “Water Made Us” captures Woods’ willingness to let go, recognizing the limits of control and embracing surrender. This is reflected in the album’s creation, as Woods collaborated with more producers and co-writers than in her previous projects. Across the 17 tracks (including four spoken interludes), Woods finds peace amid the ebbs and flows of a relationship by relieving pressure and defying expectations.

Standout track “Practice” repurposes the famous Allen Iverson quote into an earworm about enjoying each relationship for what it is, rather than fixating on finding “the one.” On “Wolfsheep,” a folksy dirge, Woods avoids definitive conclusions with the deceptively profound refrain, “Everybody’s good/No one is.” By the album’s end, Woods emerges with clarity: relationships lack clear beginnings and ends; they are not morality tales with protagonists and antagonists. Relationships are messy, unpredictable, and inevitably shape us, for better or worse. Better fasten your seatbelt and let the water carry you.

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