in defense of my own happiness
It's no surprise Joy Oladokun cites Tracy Chapman as an influence. Armed with a guitar and an achingly beautiful voice, she's cut from the same mold, capable of telling stories with clear-eyed appraisal and unflinching vulnerability. “To see a Black queer woman take the instrument of the standard Americana dude and make it her own and tell her story was maybe the most inspiring thing that could have happened to me,” Oladokun told Apple Music's Ebro Darden in Februrary 2021. Now, in defense of my own happiness, Oladokun's major-label debut, cements her place within a lineage of folk singer-songwriters documenting the complexities of the human experience. The album opens with “someone that i used to be,” a contemplative ode to growth and evolution that she approaches with a level of gentleness often reserved for others but rarely the self. “Having trouble giving grace to every one of my mistakes,” she admits in the opening verse, only to later find at least a bit of it: “Looking at the face inside the mirror with kinder eyes.” It's this sentiment that underscores the songs here. She's able to muster the strength to be fragile and imperfect, content to not know all the answers—to be a work in progress. Oscillating between facing inward and outward, Oladokun balances confession with observation, though never losing her sense of mercy for herself and others. Single “Bigger Man,” a wrenching duet with Maren Morris, illuminates the grit and patience required to subsist in the face of inequality. “I've turned sticks and stones to an olive branch, I've made a full house from a shitty hand,” she sings on the anthemic hook, “yet here I am, still gotta be bigger than the bigger man.” Oladokun is measured in her singing; she opts, instead, to let her lyrics do much of the emoting. But in moments when she does open up her voice—on songs like “if you got a problem” and “jordan”—the versatility of her artistry is made plain as the vocal traditions of gospel and soul come into dialogue with her Americana and folk. It culminates on the string ballad “breathe again,” as she prays for respite from the world and for the “faith to bend.” As much a monument to her experiences as a declaration of release from them, in defense of my own happiness musically reveals Oladokun as both the root and the branch, but it's the permission she grants herself to grow freely (and, by extension, her listeners as well) that is ultimately transcendent.