At the end of “Spongebob,” the first song on billy woods and Kenny Segal’s new collaborative album Hiding Places, we hear an automated female voice delivering some bad news: “You have 10 dollars 22 cents remaining in your account.” For those of us old enough to remember calling bank 800 numbers to check on the status of our checking accounts, this is enough to trigger a wave of panic. It’s a computer telling you that you are broke. And if you’ve ever heard that — or anything like that — in your life, you never forget the humiliated adrenaline-sweat that suddenly floods your system when you hear it. It’s the same feeling you get today when you look at your checking account online and see red numbers.
Toward the end of “Speak Gently,” another song from that same album, billy woods tells a story. He spent nearly 20 years living in the same apartment, and that entire time, he was getting mail addressed to the people who used to live there: “20 years, I’m getting these people’s mail.” When you’re poor, woods explains, you don’t get your mail forwarded. You don’t want what they’re trying to send you. “You’d look at the mail, it’s creditors, car insurance, it’s the hospital bills, policeman, ambulance, insurance, child protective services.” You’re always on the run from someone else who’s trying to pick whatever meat’s left on your bones. When he’s dead, woods figures, someone else will be reading his mail.
On “Bigfakelaugh,” another of those songs, woods tells another story. But this one isn’t really a story; it’s a flipped quote from Public Enemy’s “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos.” That song was a story, too: a prison breakout from a someone who righteously refused the draft. “Bigfakelaugh” is something else: “I got a letter from my insurer the other day / Opened and read it / Said the treatment wasn’t covered.” There’s no breaking out of that.
All through Hiding Places, woods goes to great, jarring poetic lengths to capture the feeling of being broke and black in America, a land that’s long been hostile to the broke and the black. The album works as a sweaty, jangled rumination on stress and fear and hopelessness and grim acceptance. It is dark, and the darkest thing about it is that you know how true it is. Consider the way billy woods slashes right through the glamor that so many of his rap peers attach to criminal life: “I broke bread with killers and rapists / I got money with niggas you should not leave with a child for two fucking seconds / They don’t tell you that in they raps / Don’t tell me it’s the past / I live in the past, Jack.” Consider the way he nails the people — like me, and maybe like you — who get fascinated with that glamor: “Anthropologists watching negroes sell dope / A huddled coroner’s corner store, jotting notes.”
billy woods has been making underground rap music since around the beginning of this century. He has plenty of connections to the mythic past of New York underground rap — to people like Blockhead and Aesop Rock — and the cluttered paranoia of that music informs his. But billy woods doesn’t speak in allegory, or in surreal hypertext, or in Philip K. Dick sci-fi. His music is visceral and immediate. It is about now, or about the darkest possible version of now. Right now, woods is on an incredible run, both solo and as one half of the duo Armand Hammer with the Brooklyn rapper Elucid. I’ve only been catching up with what woods has been doing in recent months, but it’s clear that he’s getting better all the time, sharper and more focused and more mercilessly observant about our current corroded reality. Paraffin, the album that Armand Hammer released last year, was some kind of heavy, discordant masterpiece. Hiding Places is another.
Kenny Segal, the producer behind Hiding Places, is a longtime veteran of the Los Angeles underground and a part of the hugely important underground collective Project Blowed. Project Blowed’s music is generally dense, but it’s also playful and sometimes optimistic. That’s not the aesthetic that Segal brings with him on Hiding Places. Instead, he brings brings a heavy skronk-lurch: detuned guitars, drowning synths, drums that thud where most would thump. These are rap beats, and they might even be New York rap beats, but they remind me more of Pere Ubu than of DJ Premier. They’re death-of-an-empire music. And woods raps over this music in a booming yammer, throwing his voice against the walls of these beats with the fierce persistence of someone who sees a vast injustice and who needs you to see it, too.
In one quiet moment on Hiding Places, woods remembers (or imagines) himself (or his character) as a kid with no money: “Dollar movie theater, dingy foyer, little kid, not a penny to my name / Fucking with the joystick, pretending I was really playing.” In a moment that’s quiet in a different way, woods puts himself (or his character) in a moment where the agents of the state come for the kids with no money: “I was in the ceiling when they swept the building / I kept my head down when the cops came for the children.” And he’s a good enough writer that you can lose yourself in that vision, can smell the dust in that crawlspace. In press photos and in videos, billy woods leaves his face obscured. It’s an artistic device. But maybe it’s something else, too. If he’s paranoid, then Hiding Places lets us know why that paranoia makes sense. He lets us know why it might be the only rational response.
“No surprise, the rich suggest you do more with less,” woods chuckles, and it’s a dark joke. There are dark jokes everywhere on Hiding Places. There are dark jokes about the way rap itself can become the domain of the rich: “I don’t wanna see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall.” There are dark jokes about interactions with well-meaning agents of the state: “Social worker said, ‘Close your eyes / Tell me where you see yourself in five, then write it down / Come on guys, it’s just a thought exercise.'” There are dark jokes about Alec Baldwin’s predatory-capitalist speech in Glengarry Glen Ross: “Second place is steak knives.” There are dark jokes about the noise that surrounds all of us, and about the information that the noise contains: “The news is all mergers, state murders, the indictment of public servants.”
Dark jokes can work. They can hit you in the gut. Hiding Places works. It’s a heavy album, and a bleak one. But it’s masterful, too. Thus far in 2019, I haven’t heard anyone else, in any genre of music, do anything this powerful. On Hiding Places, billy woods doesn’t try to make anything easy for us. But he shouldn’t. They’ll still hit you with that overdraft fee the first chance they get. And billy woods has learned how to turn that certainty into art.
1. Planit Hank – “What Happened To The Streets” (Feat. Benny The Butcher & M.O.P.)
New York hardhead boom-bap, rendered as a horror-movie score.
2. Pivot Gang – “Bad Boys” (Feat. Smino)
A cool thing about Saba and his friends is that they’ve figured out how be hard and funny and smart and technically masterful, all at once. That doesn’t happen often.
3. Stunna4Vegas – “Billion Dollar Baby Freestyle” (Feat. DaBaby)
I have waited for so many years for tense harpsichord plinks to return to rap music. That time is now upon us.
4. Don Q – “Roll My Weed” (Feat. Jay Critch)
Between this and Denzel Curry and Charlie Heat’s “Aloha,” this is turning out to be a great time for dramatic mariachi-trumpet loops. Let’s get some dramatic mariachi trumpets together with some tense harpsichord plinks.
5. PG Ra – “Back To Bali”
Is it possible that DaBaby’s sense of liveliness is starting to spread? PG Ra is from South Carolina, and he has that classic drawl in his voice. But there is a bounce to this song that has nothing to do with Atlanta, and that’s a good thing.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
ayeeee y’all going to jail 🔥 https://t.co/SjSPg3Gl8D
— nope (@LilNasX) April 7, 2019
i’m finally popular in college and i’m not there https://t.co/Mpygqu2EaJ
— nope (@LilNasX) April 8, 2019
wow i’m being played by a 37 year old father of 3 in a political cartoon pic.twitter.com/8dkNDt8fy4
— nope (@LilNasX) April 7, 2019
oh yeah we bumpin the downward spiral tonight https://t.co/xfBDztp17y
— nope (@LilNasX) April 9, 2019
what’s a good album title
— nope (@LilNasX) April 8, 2019