And nearly every one of those lyrics is focused on Woods herself, which is a departure for an artist who has so far made her name as a skillful observer of character, history and social issues. Most people first heard Woods’s voice — warm, heartfelt and sincere — when she was featured on gospel-tinged tracks by Chance the Rapper (“Blessings”) and Segal (“Sunday Candy”). Her 2016 solo debut, “Heavn,” was a confident assertion of Black womanhood in a time of political unrest (“Yeah she scares the government,” she sang on the trenchant “Blk Girl Soldier,” “déjà vu of Tubman”), while her 2019 breakout “Legacy! Legacy!” was an ambitious ode to artists of color who came before her. Each song took the name of a different pioneer: “Zora,” “Miles,” “Octavia.”
That’s not to say there wasn’t any Jamila in them. “With ‘Legacy!,’ there’s a lot of songs where I was actually writing a lot about myself, but I’m like, ‘I’ll call it ‘Sonia!’” she said and laughed. “Water Made Us,” which she considers her most personal and vulnerable album to date, found her “shedding” armor. She decided, she said, to “write with myself as the source material. I don’t need to put that layer on top of it anymore.”
“Water Made Us” is all about Woods’s own search for love. She said she and McClenney sequenced its 17 tracks so it would feel “like the cycle of a relationship.” The first few songs have the fluttery apprehension of a new connection. Then comes conflict, in the form of the soulful, keyboard-driven ballad “Wreckage Room” and the heartbroken but hopeful “Thermostat.” The final stretch contains a few of what Woods calls “mantra songs,” for their expressions of accumulated wisdom.
A conversation with Woods is full of such mantras. She has collected the insight of her poetry mentors and writerly inspirations and pocketed them like talismans, ready to be quoted at the opportune moment. One advised her, “Your relationship to your art is the most precious thing, so you have to be protective of it and gentle with it.” Another, listening to some of her early music, offered an observation that rings especially true to “Water Made Us”: “He said, ‘You have so many specific loves,’” she recalled. “I was like, ‘That feels so accurate. I think the way that each person loves and is able to love is so specific, and the attachment styles or lessons we carry into what it means to love someone are so personal.”
Most songs about love fall at two poles: “I love you” and “I hate you.” The refreshing thing about “Water Made Us” is how many variations along the spectrum between them Woods captures — how many specific loves these songs have. “It’s not butterflies and fireworks,” she sings on the gorgeous leadoff single “Tiny Garden,” finding an apt lyrical image of the everyday work that goes into a relationship in the steady care of a green space: “Said it’s gonna be a tiny garden, but I feed it every day.”