‘Way Up’ &’Holy’ Jamila Woods (Heavn, Closed Sessions, 2016)

With its synthetic-operatic beginning and over-sized drumbeat challenging Jamila Woods to match the intensity – something she does flawlessly, effortlessly – this song immediately captured my attention for its beguiling mix of dreaminess and affect (and the big, big sound). 

‘Just cos I’m born here, don’t mean I’m from here,’ Woods sings.   

The song conveys so perfectly that feeling of being apart, that sensation of feeling different from those around you, alongside a desire for escape: I've been waiting for so long/Call me by my name/They keep telling me I'm wrong
We are not the same
I don't belong here
I don't belong here.

I'm feeling high
My money's gone
Can't find my home
I wanna go
To my own private planet I've been dreaming of
Little moon in my head I be moving on
Up and away
Up and away

I’m wondering if the repeated line – ‘I don’t belong here’ is a nod to Radiohead’s 90s anthem Creep (it could be, as another song on the album is a reworking of The Cure’s ‘Just like heaven’ so maybe this is a musical-historical touchstone of hers).

What I particularly like about this song is the way the production refuses the predictable route of making it sweet & lovely, spare & tinkly to match the vocal delivery or the apparent softness of the subject matter. The lyrics are almost adolescent - that’s no criticism from me, especially the line: No one knows I'd rather spend my days alone on my pillow - you can imagine the younger Woods dreaming as she writes her innermost secret thoughts in her diary. And yet the accompanying music is tough, soldier-like almost (and very loud).

Such a production approach is smart, it seems to me, as it makes the delicate, lilting nature of the vocal and the teen-sentiment of the lyrics come through even stronger. This kind of battling against the vocal, to the point of almost subsuming it one strain in contemporary hip-hop and R&B production and something I find refreshing. The very loudness – and intensity - of the music operates like a mask, it hides something, while also highlighting the lightness of the vocal line (and saving it from becoming too saccharine).

Having such a sharp contrast between the production/sound and the singer’s performance encourages us to take notice and listen differently. And here, the disjunction inherent in the music – or essential conflict - reinforces the song's message of not belonging and alienation. As Jamila Woods sings: ‘I'm an alien from inner space/They can't read my mind all in my face.’ 

Another wonderful song from Jamila Woods' Heavn is ‘Holy’ … the message/perspective is touching as well.

Her voice is just so beautiful here.

Have a listen to this lovely live performance of ‘Way up’ by Woods recorded in New York in December last year: