Some of the best music from the past 20 years has come from artists coming off debut success, hungry for more. Guest writer Leo Culp’s The Sophomore Series column looks at 21st century albums that prove the phrase “sophomore slump” is outdated.
While both Jamila Woods and The Avalanches released sophomore projects closely aligned with their debuts, they dove into the core of what made those albums great. The fourth installment of The Sophomore Series looks at how musicians tamper with time, and make timeless albums in the process.
Time moves at a different pace in music. And even then it depends on the genre. Are folk songs really written that differently than they were, say, 40 years ago? With all the reissues happening in that last ten years, would someone with no musical knowledge be able to guess that Neil Young’s Homecoming was originally recorded in the ’70s, even though it was released within seven days of Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III in 2020? On the other hand, hip-hop changes every year. And R&B has gone from the thing Little Richard did to the thing Beyoncé does.
In some ways, continuity in music is a good thing. Take the Avalanches’ debut (Since I Left You, 2000) and sophomore (Wildflower, 2016) projects, for example. Building their albums exclusively with samples, their sound is an encyclopedia of bittersweet music from over the years. While the process of sampling is a relatively new practice, it is hard to identify where the sounds they use lie on a musical timeline; it reaches a perfect level of timely and timeless. In other ways, continuity in socially progressive music shows us how little has changed over the years. Jamila Woods’ first (Heavn, 2016) and second (Legacy! Legacy!, 2019) albums are about promoting Black political and social commentary. Her albums are testaments to the many ways America has failed its minority populations. For those reasons, these albums are also, timeless and timely, as they beautifully and painfully describe the struggle Black Americans have endured for centuries.
Both artists looked to the past for inspiration on their sophomore albums, but took from opposite ends of that spectrum. The Avalanches’ sampled sounds are like old memories, happy to look back on even if you’re sad they’re gone, while Jamila Woods looked at generations of struggles to find a sound that honored those voices and simultaneously pushed the movement forward. These albums are perfect examples of the different ways time can influence an artist’s vision.
If she don’t love me, what can I do?
Just put on my best pair of shoes
Because I, I’m me
Because she said,
“he’s the one that drill the charms
Honey let’s go wrong”
I just want to know
What’s wrong with me?
Being in love with you
– “Because I’m Me,” The Avalanches
It’s hard coming up with one concrete reason the Avalanches’ second album Wildflower took sixteen years to see the light of day. Let’s just say “it’s complicated”; no singular reason is to blame. In an interview with the Guardian, member Tony Di Blasi explained the many factors that pushed the album back, and said, “We always had that drive – ‘we’re never going to give up’ – but there was always that little voice in the back of my mind, going: ‘No, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, it’s not going to happen.’” Wildflower ended up being winding and complex, like the journey it took to get it released.
As a matter of practice, I am not a huge fan of the word “unique”. It’s often used to describe something interesting that has, in fact, been done many times before. Having said that, I am going to break my own rule: The Avalanches are truly, wholly “unique”. An entire Reddit discussion centers around how no one is quite able to find artists like them. Sure, people on the thread might bring up DJs that capture certain aspects of the group, but no one else has been able to make dance/pop/DJ/hip-hop/instrumental records that captivate you both in your bedroom and at a festival quite like the Avalanches do. They build their albums almost completely with samples, and rest right where quality and quantity meet.
Bittersweet, nostalgic samples typified their first album Since I Left You, and its harmony was best found when every sample on a track joined together. The Avalanches’ dove further into this vibe with Wildflower. Songs melt into the ones after them, and with sparse use of drum tracks, the album floats along like a trippy dream. Since I Left You feels like it comes from another world, but Wildflower sounds like the best parts of this one: the goofy, the sincere, the wistful, and the self-awareness that comes with looking back. It’s much more laid back and self-aware than its predecessor, and songs naturally fit together. Both of the Avalanches’ projects have seamless transitions from track to track, but Wildflower is perhaps much more suited to a full-album listen than Since I Left You.
Sampling in itself is grounded in the past, but Wildflower goes past sampling as a practice. In a way, they capture the feeling of the past as impressively as they use the sounds themselves. Songs like “Saturday Night Inside Out” are difficult to describe in words. I bring my own baggage and experiences to the music, so maybe others might not feel the same way I do about certain songs. But, to me, this song sounds like every late July night when I knew school was around the corner and I wanted to hold on to every little detail. All of Wildflower feels like this to me, and that’s why I say it’s timely and timeless: it captures the best of the moment you’re in, and the best of the memories you wish you could relive. Like I said before, bittersweet.
Don’t ever let a textbook scare you
You the missing piece
OG technology, they stole you
Don’t ever let ’em knock the way you talk
The language you evolve your natural genius
– “OCTAVIA,” Jamila Woods
Being timely and timeless is not always a good thing. The Avalanches’ capture the feeling of looking back fondly, but albums that act as social commentary highlight why art is, and has always been, important. Jamila Woods’ Legacy! Legacy! is one of these albums. Her first album Heavn (2016) is about how Black girls cope with systemic racism and sexism and understand their own self-worth. It’s a gorgeous, intimate project that could only come from someone who’s fully realized their personal vision and worldview.
Legacy! Legacy!, though, shows Woods’ life seen through the lens of the artists who inspire her. Each song is titled and based on a specific influential figure in art and history, and how Woods sees her own struggles in their experiences. In the same way the Avalanches used sounds and vibes, Woods used philosophies and hardship. In an interview with The Spinoff, Woods said,
“I’ve always really loved sampling a lot, whether in poetry or music, the idea of the hip-hop practice of taking something and re-contextualizing it. But I was trying to push myself with this project to sample in a more innovative way or at least maybe approaching sampling more like a poet. So not sampling a beat or lyrics, as much as sampling a quote from an interview, an image I saw or a poem that I read – and sampling these in a non-traditional way. So that’s kind of where the impetus started.”
“GIOVANNI” samples the thoughts behind Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Ego Tripping” to discuss Woods’ pride in her lineage. “SUN RA” and “OCTAVIA” play off the Afrofuturist writings of Sun Ra and Octavia Butler, and are about owning, and being deliberate, with one’s narrative. While Heavn was centered around the path to loving one’s self as a child when you are a person of color, Legacy! Legacy! dives into how those struggles have lasted for generations. Each song is a different perspective on how Woods interacts with her influences, and her way of depicting the struggles of these icons shows how little has changed over the years.
While Heavn focuses on how Woods protests the environment she grew up in, Legacy! Legacy! centers around who inspires her, as she highlights the interconnectedness of these issues. Two lines really stick out from this project. The first comes from “ZORA” (about writer Zora Neale Hurston): I’m all out of fucks to give, yeah / Fear ain’t no way to live, yeah / Must be disconcerting how I discombob’ your mold.” The second comes from Nitty Scott’s verse on “SONIA” (about poet Sonia Sanchez): “All the women in me are tired.” Legacy! Legacy! shows that even if these struggles are Woods’ own, they are born out of generations of injustice. The perseverance of Woods and her icons would not need to happen if we lived in a just world. This album is a testament to how racism and sexism aren’t just isolated in each time period, but represent a thread of pain. Paying homage to those who fought before her, Woods proves that timeless albums can show how much farther society has left to fight for equality.
Diving into Their Debut’s Spirit
In a way, Jamila Woods and the Avalanches did the same thing with their sophomore albums. While both released projects closely aligned with their debuts, they dove more into the ethos of what made those albums great. The Avalanches went dreamier, and sought to recreate the memory-like feeling that comes with their mode of sampling. As a result, their sophomore album was more ambient, and less reliant on a song-by-song structure. Jamila Woods’ first project dove into the present issues that come with growing up as a person of color in the United States, but her second album looks at how people have approached those same issues over generations. These albums are not only thematic enough to rest in multiple decades, but sound fresh, yet vintage. They have that old-timey vinyl feel, and feel like they are “lived-in”, like they are as pertinent as the ideas they discuss. I am never a huge fan of albums that sound too refined. These albums show that while the artists’ philosophies are refined, they want their music to have the vibe of the conflict on display. As these artists release more projects, it’ll be fascinating to see what more they can do with the world that came before them.
Leo Culp is currently a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying Media/Journalism. He hosts a local radio show in Chapel Hill, and loves watching Liverpool soccer and Carolina basketball. He is always trying to find something new to learn about music, and is a proud Atlantan.
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