Songs You Should Know: “VRY BLK” – Jamila Woods

If you’re anything like me, two years ago you were shook by Beyoncé’s premiere of “Formation,” a paean to Black life in the U.S. It was 2016, and between her performance of the song at the Super Bowl plus the exclusivity of the upcoming Lemonade, that album was the world for hip-hop and R&B fans.

But as much as I love Queen Bey, the pomp and circumstance that surrounded Lemonade unfortunately blinded me to an album released a mere three months later: Jamila Woods’ HEAVN, is a piece that outshines (I feel) Lemonade both lyrically and topically.

While HEAVN should be taken as a whole – it’s a quick, 45-minute listen – it’s the second song, “VRY BLK,” that stands out and defines the album the most. Behind the conceit of classic hand-clap games and sing-song childhood poems, Woods and guest artist Noname spit fierce lyrics that take on violence unique to the Black community. “VRY BLK” goes beyond what a lot of chart toppers discuss, delving into the fact that the Black community in America still wakes day-to-day as if they aren’t living in one of the most developed countries in the free world.  And returning to my earlier reference, where Ms. Knowles used Lemonade to empower her legions of fans living this life, Woods and Noname instead speak out to their audience who isn’t. They speak to how dreams of love and success are cast to the side for worries about how they will survive in a country where teens are shot by color of their skin; where politician’s use the community as a platform for votes before abandoning them completely.

While the subject matter and lyrics of this song are filled with rage and sorrow, the music itself is anything but. Producers oddCouple and Kweku Collins instead created a celebration of instruments — hand claps, chimes, marimba and electronic, warbling riffs — to back Woods’ lyrics. The music itself seems to say that while the life of the Black community is filled with hardships, being Black is not a reason for sorrow. Being of this culture – being ‘vry black’ – is a reason to be proud, to stand tall, and, as Woods says, a reason to fight back.

All told, between the creativity of the music and poignancy of the lyrics, this song needs to get into your regular rotation. It’ll get stuck in your head and heart for days, a protest song that has worked its way from the street march to the every day.

Jamila Woods will appear at WGBH as part of our new series Live at Fraser on February 1st – tickets available here.