How much do you really miss the ‘90s?
The sheer quantity of ‘90s nostalgia content on BuzzFeed alone is enough to judge that looking back on the by-gone era of VCRs, sweatshirts tied around the waist, and conspicuously diverse TV shows is now the height of millennial cliché. All the same, just about every generation nurtures a fondness for their youth—and there’s a tenderness in those memories that runs deeper than a run-of-the-mill listicle. To return to childhood is to return to that innocent time when the news you paid attention to was all about pop culture, and a war, an election, or a police shooting was out of sight and out of mind.
These days, two years into the movement for Black lives with little sign that the violence is abating, we can all use that escape from adulthood. And ready to lead us back down memory lane are two artists from Chicago, using hip hop and soul to work through the dangerous mixture of street and police violence embroiling their own city.
Though mainstream awareness of Chicago’s prolific hip hop scene has often focused men like Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and Kanye West, Black women in the city made waves this summer with long-awaited album releases of their own. Noname, a soft-spoken rapper with a background in slam poetry that has glimmered in many a guest verse for the past few years, finally released her solo project Telefone in late July. Jamila Woods, probably best known as the enchanting vocalist on Chance the Rapper and the Social Experiment’s 2015 track “Sunday Candy,” released her debut solo album Heavn just a few weeks before. Together, they trace a path back towards the innocence we miss so much—and help us determine where to go from here.
The current of nostalgia in Noname’s Telefone is laid out from the jump. In the opening track, “Yesterday,” Noname admits “I wish I was a kid again” before the hook floats in, and in between the coos of a doo-wop style choir, vocalists intone, “when the sun is going down, when the dark is out to stay, I picture your smile like it was yesterday.” Later, in “Diddy Bop,” she weaves a full tapestry of her childhood, playing on the playground, juking to B2K on the stereo, and the “whole neighborhood [hitting] the Diddy Bop.”
In this charmed life “mama says come home before the streetlights do,” but as Raury explains in his guest verse, the only thing to fear about getting home after curfew is that “mama gon’ whoop [your] ass again.” The kids in the song revel in the present and concoct ambitious plans for the future:
“This sound like growing out my clothes
With stars in my pocket, dreaming bout making my hood glow
This sound like every place I would go, if I could fly
This feel like every summertime
Fall asleep dreaming bout all the places I could go
And every one of them feels so close, still chasing time.”
The summertime fantasy of “Diddy Bop” is a far cry from the reality of “Yesterday,” where Noname’s grandma warns, “don’t grow up too soon, don’t blow the candles out—don’t let the cops get you.”
If kids are looking toward the future for redemption and adults are looking to the past, maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle—a present that takes the past as inspiration to create a better future. Jamila Woods helps us get there in Heavn, another album where dreams of getting up and out—as in the closing track “Way Up”—are balanced with love for the present moment. Woods insists that there’s a way to make things work here and now, looking to her ancestors, past Civil Rights leaders, and the women around her for guidance.
In the track that gives the album its name, Woods imagines a “Heavn” built by a “trick” that makes love possible even though “the world wants us numb and alone,” and explains that her ancestors did it, so she and her partner can do it too. “I don’t wanna run away with you,” she demands, “I wanna live our life right here.” She finds the strength she needs in “Blk Girl Soldier,” an anthem for today’s Black girl activists who are “deja vu of Tubman,” through a chant invoking Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Sojourner Truth, and Assata Shakur.
But the song that draws up nostalgia in its most recognizable form is “VRY BLK”—which also happens to feature Noname. The first verse is sung to the tune of the hand game Miss Susie, but rewrites the rhymes to address police brutality: “ask me no more questions, tell me more lies/your serving and protecting is stealing babies’ lives.” In the hook, chants of “I’m very black, black, black/Can’t send me back, back back” and “double double this/double double that” reference other hand games, and the combination of these rhymes with an activist message gives the song an emotional resonance that’s impossible to ignore for anyone who knows the words from childhood.
In the spoken outro to the song, Woods explains its inspiration: in an unfamiliar place, she and a group of Black women who had never met before got together and started playing the hand game Rockin’ Robin. “It was the best inside secret that I felt like I ever had,” she tell us. “That’s one of my favorite things about blackness.” There’s a joy in the shared experience of Black culture that can’t be taken away, no matter what the circumstance. And it’s those perfect moments—like Noname’s neighborhood hitting the Diddy Bop—that are ours by virtue of our blackness. As much turmoil and adversity as we have faced due to our race, and may well continue to face for generations to come, we also have our traditions and our community, able to generate such joy and give us the power to keep pushing ahead.