Words About Music
I’ve been listening to and enjoying the music of New-York-via-D.C. rapper billy woods since I first came across him in 2012, with the release of his third solo album, “History Will Absolve Me,” which came after several years of being a member of Super Chron Flight Brothers with fellow rapper Priviledge.
Since “History Will Absolve Me,” which was one of my favorite albums of that year and remains my favorite album from billy woods, he’s dropped two very-good projects: 2013’s “Dour Candy” and 2015’s “Today, I Wrote Nothing.” He’s also joined forces with Elucid under the name Armand Hammer, whose 2013 album “Race Music” is pretty damn good as well.
2017 sees the return of billy woods with “Known Unknowns,” which, much like “Dour Candy,” was (somewhat) exclusively produced by legendary beatmaker Blockhead, who has most famously produced for Aesop Rock. At 55 minutes in length, “Known Unknowns” hits us with 18 songs that tackle a variety of topics in billy woods’ familiarly booming voice and wry sense of humor.
This humor comes to fruition on the Aesop Rock-produced opening cut “Bush League,” which features imagery which attacks a neoliberalized sense of fighting injustice, with lines like “White supremacy — the worthiest of opponents/Exchanged jerseys and shook hands/’Both teams played hard, my man!'” The second verse seems to go more into his personal life, indicating the duality of billy woods’ music: gritty, hard-hitting rhymes amid humorous pop culture references and catchy hooks, all of which “Bush League” has in spades. I fuckin’ love this song, and the beat Aesop hits us with is pretty incredible.
“Snake Oil” is a bit more esoteric in its subject matter, focusing more on imagery and lyricism than it does focus on creating a narrative. This reminds me somewhat of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., whom billy woods has spoken about being inspired by. Hell, the third song on this album is even titled “Unstuck,” a reference to Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.” This track kicks off with a sample of Carl Sagan telling us about how old the universe is. I like the way woods compares Vonnegut’s idea of coming unstuck in time and being able to experience all time and all space at once with the idea of woods being able to see through the perspective of everyone who grew up in the gritty, crack-laden neighborhoods of D.C. or anywhere else in the world. The history of the drug trade is one laced with violence and political cause, and those two ideas are not lost on woods in this song, with lyrics about rolling the dice, fucking around, and losing your life.
Aesop Rock makes another return with fellow NY rapper Homeboy Sandman on the song “Wonderful,” which features guest verses from both rappers. Aesop hits us at first with a dense verse that I still haven’t fully been able to detract much of meaning from, but that’s how it tends to go with Aesop Rock’s music. It’s always good to hear him rhyme, though, especially in the wake of 2016’s amazing “The Impossible Kid.” After a decent verse from billy, Homeboy Sandman hits us with his typically speedy, yet laid-back flow. I also love the way Homeboy’s verse calls back to Aesop’s with the “Obi Seven” reference.
“Superpredator” is a provocative track with its haunting beat, and the straightfaced hook, if you could call it that: “He killed what he loved, so he had to die/Shots fired.” It’s another example of billy woods hitting us with a serious of loosely related references and points that don’t seem to cohere into a larger point, at least to me. However, that doesn’t cut away from how effective this track is, and I think the ultimate “point” of the song is meant to be left to interpretation.
“Fall Back” has a more relaxing beat to it, but billy woods always comes through with an even more intense vocal performance than he’s already been giving. “Just say he’s the best/Let’s not argue,” woods intones on the hook, as he seems to be sarcastically referring to other, bigger, less talented rappers. “Groundhogs Day,” the next track, follows the life of someone who wakes-n-bakes every day, or perhaps woods is himself saying that he wakes up and smokes weed every day. He nicely blurs the line between when he’s criticizing himself and when he’s criticizing other artists.
I love the concept of the next song, “Everybody Knows,” which seems to poke at people who post their every move and social interaction on social media, and how this only makes it easier for the state to keep tabs on people. “Big Brother is just an app on ya iPad,” woods raps, carrying through with his literary-reference-laced bars. He later ties this concept to the absurdity of war, specifically in the Middle East: “Gaza’s ‘King-Beyond-the-Wall’/Nameless with a thousand faces, job description: Be not where the missiles fall.”
The heat keeps coming as this long album reaches the halfway mark, with the track “Police Came to My Show” being one of the album’s most memorable tracks. I can see why he set it as its centerpiece, with its linear narrative about seeing two people he recognizes as cops (though they are in plainclothes) attending one of his live shows as fans. Recognizing these two cops, he makes sure that he does it up, performing even harder and with more political vigor than he otherwise might have. Seeing two enforcers of the state at a show for an artist who actively opposes police oppression just makes him want to work harder. Weirdly enough, it’s inspirational for him, and this track certainly carries that inspirational vibe. The song ends up focusing more on tour life for a smaller hip-hop artist playing bars at a low cover price, giving shouts-out to more famous rappers who let him open for them on tour so he can make a bit more money and enjoy some of the finer things in his green room, like tea and fruit-cheese platters.
“Nomento,” the next track, is sort of an Armand Hammer track, since it features a verse from Elucid. I’m not a huge fan of it though, with its less-endearing repetitive hook and woods’ slower-paced verse. I think Elucid drops a hot verse, though, which has a seriously dark and demented tone to it, seeming to depict some sort of hell-like waiting room which plays Rob Schneider movies on repeat and doesn’t have any windows. It’s not my favorite track on the album, but after such a consistently strong first half, I’m willing to let one or two track slide as we get deeper into the tracklist.
“Washington Redskins” is a much better than the track preceding it, although I wish it came through with a more cogent message about… whatever it’s about. Woods does talk about debtor prisons and Harper’s Ferry, but its title is sort of a misnomer, as I don’t really see anything in the track that actually addresses the racist title of the football team from Washington, D.C. “Tupac Jackets,” the next track, also carries some political undertones, but I think it’s a bit clearer about its topic. Woods talks a lot about gentrification in this track and the ways in which black culture is appropriated by capitalism so the rich can make more money, with lines like “Waiter said collards the new kale” and “Hood eBay be the Yemeni deli” and “White kid it didn’t fit gave it as a gift/Prophet or T.H.U.G. donned with a Fonzie shrug/Ya dig? In the desert holes dug/Cosby sweater, Pac leathers, Suge gloves.”
The next song, “Source Awards,” is excellent, but criminally short. I love the way Blockhead incorporates a sample from Ghostface Killah’s “Poisonous Darts,” which seems to paint a (semi-?) fictional account of woods should he ever see widespread success for his music from a hip-hop-oriented award show, with lines like “A whole heap of rappers I don’t even know/Still clapped like ‘way to go.'”
While I was hoping I would enjoy the track “Strawman,” it feels a bit disjointed. Woods never really feels at home on the beat Blockhead brings here, and its poppiness makes it feel out of place on this album. I like Woods’ lyrics, but his flow just doesn’t fit this track’s rhythm. I do enjoy the melodic qualities of Googie’s guest verse, though, and I think this song fits him more, although to be fair I’ve never heard any of Googie’s music so I can’t fully comment on what would fit him best.
The record really picks up with “Cheap Shoes” and “Gazpacho” though, which both carry woods’ typical method of placing imagery before narrative. He’s a brilliant lyricist, combining the referential nature of Open Mike Eagle with the obscure eccentricities of Aesop Rock’s verbiage. It can make the tracks hard to swallow at times, since there’s so many and they’re all pretty short, but the whole in this case definitely transcends the sum of its parts.
The penultimate track, “Keloid,” hits the listener immediately with a solemn look at growing old: “You won’t get no answers, not for the stuff that keeps you up at night.” The idea of there being nothing after death terrifies a lot of people, but woods has come to terms with this reality, and understands that he will die one day without having the secrets of the universe revealed to him. Things get even more existential on the album’s closer, “Robespierre,” with the contradicting lines “I am who I pretend to be” and “I’m not who I pretend to be” leaving you with questions before vocalist Barrie McLain beautifully interpolating Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” Next thing you know, the track is over, and you’re not entirely sure what it was you just experienced, but you know you enjoyed it.
That’s how I ultimately come away from this album. I’m having a hard time discerning a message from this album, but I also think this is billy woods’ intention. He’s always been a rather obtuse rapper, focusing more on hitting you with dark, humorous bars which make you think than trying to say outright how he feels on specific issues. What you end up with is 18 tracks that give the listener a great idea of who billy woods is, even if he doesn’t delve into his personal life too much. He blurs fact from fiction by rapping about coming up in the part of the country the state cares about the least while also tying it to references from “The Wire,” “Star Wars,” “American Psycho,” George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and plenty more that I’m certain flew right over my head.
While I may not be able to fully identify with this album, you don’t need to necessarily identify with an album in order to know you love it. While I still think I prefer “History Will Absolve Me,” “Known Unknowns” is a close second place for me in billy woods’ recent discography. I know his style may not vibe with everyone, and I’m certain that this won’t be the album that puts him on the map. He will always fly just under the radar, consistently putting out great-to-amazing hip-hop albums for his fans that a few newcomers will discover every time, only to be more-or-less ignored by most taste-making music journalism blogs.
SCORE — 8.50 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Bush League, Snake Oil, Unstuck, Wonderful, Superpredator, Fall Back, Groundhogs Day, Everybody Knows, Police Came to My Show, Washington Redskins, Tupac Jackets, Source Awards, Cheap Shoes, Gazpacho, Keloid, Robespierre