Moor Mother & billy woods’ Jagged, Apocalyptic, Beautiful New Album
You ever have that thing where you know something is good but it just doesn’t click with you? Until this year, I had that with Moor Mother. Moor Mother is Camae Ayewa, a multi-disciplinary artist who grew up in Aberdeen, Maryland — Cal Ripken’s hometown — and who’s now based in Philadelphia. As a musician, her work branches off into free jazz and experimental noise and spoken word. She’s got a huge presence, a deep and blustery voice. As a writer, she deals in urgent abstraction, rendering anger and pride in slashing expressionism. I admire a lot of her work, but I rarely find myself returning to it. That’s my deal, not hers.
Moor Mother’s music is hard and sharp and knotty, and it’s a lot to take in at once. You can’t just throw a Moor Mother record on and go about your day. As someone who’d not generally all that interested in free jazz or experimental noise or spoken word, I’ve always had a hard time finding a place to latch on. I could tell that this was intense, powerful, worthy stuff, but I wasn’t working on its frequency. When Moor Mother makes rap music, though, that all changes. She’s really good at making rap music.
Really, Moor Mother has always made rap music — or, at the very least music that intersects with rap. There’s a bit of Scarface’s commanding rumble in her growling cadences and a bit of Kool Keith’s free-associative transcendentalism in her oblique, allusive writing. Earlier this year, Moor Mother showed up on “Ramses II,” a track from the New York duo Armand Hammer’s Shrines album. On that song, she rapped alongside Earl Sweatshirt, as well as Armand Hammer’s billy woods and Elucid — three truly great rappers. She more than holds her own. Her line about “a Black Panther knife to the neck of King Leopold” might’ve been the best thing on the whole song. A month later, Moor Mother and billy woods again linked up for “Furies,” a mythic, splenetic zone-out over a clanking, mystical beat, producer Willie Green sampling British jazz collective Sons Of Kemet. “They don’t want me to shine ’cause I remind them of the fight,” Moor Mother snarled. It sounded like the start of something. It was.
On Friday, Moor Mother and billy woods released the surprise collaborative album BRASS. (Right now, the album isn’t streaming; you have to buy it directly from the Backwoodz Studioz label. It’s worth your $15.) As collaborators, Ayewa and woods make perfect sense. Both of them have long made fiery political work that depicts America as an empire in decline, one that habitually abuses its most vulnerable people as matter of course. Together, they’ve made an album steeped in bloody history and uncertain future. BRASS is meditative and nerve-jangling at the same damn time, and it paints vivid pictures.
Both Moor Mother and billy woods write lyrics that demand close reading and analysis, and both of them create feelings of societal desiccation and cruelty. But both of them also bring real swagger to their writing. Moor Mother: “Numb, fumbling Fats Waller/ Looking up at the system like ‘Daaaaamn, your feets too big.'” billy woods: “Petеr Sellers in the club, my black facе the elephant in the room.” Every line is a new image that, if it hits you right, might send you staggering. Every line ] has a lifetime’s worth of Black culture and white oppression built into it.
There are times when Moor Mother and woods sound relatively conversational, but even then, the lines hit hard: “No white saviors, look what happened to the Cubans/ Reluctantly sold bud to my white neighbors when they moved in.” But where they really excel is in intense, granular imagery. Sometimes, that imagery comes from history: “No neo, just old soul/ Al Green, ashy-ass elbows/ Mahalia home from tour, serving black eyes out the window/ You wonder who is it/ You wonder who is it/ It’s me, dummy.” Sometimes, it comes from a fucked-up vision of the present: “Grey meat inside the C-Town/ Quarter ki in the lost and found.” (C-Town is a supermarket chain in New York City. I can confirm that there is often some nasty-looking meat in there.) Sometimes, they’re talking about a future that feels imminent: “Thе zoo had a decapitated giraffe… The gift shop was patent Congolese hands, chopped and dropped in your gift bag/ Seeping blood turned the giftwrap black.”
Musically, BRASS sounds haunted. It doesn’t generally feel right to call the tracks beats. They rarely thump. Instead, they hiss and thud and crackle. Even established producers like the Alchemist and Preservation contribute warped, scattered pieces of music. Elucid, billy woods’ partner in Armand Hammer, did something similar a couple of months ago; he and producer the Lasso teamed up to form a duo called Small Bills and to release a warped, psychedelic album called Don’t Play It Straight. I tend to think of woods as the more grounded half of Armand Hammer, but BRASS isn’t a grounded album, at least in the way that I would usually use the word. Instead, it’s a work of tingling bad-feelings expressionism. To listen to BRASS is to disappear into a certain headspace.
BRASS isn’t exactly an easier listen than the music that Moor Mother has made on her own or with projects like True Opera, her recent collaborative album with the jazz group Metal Jewelry. But BRASS kicks harder for me, maybe because it takes the shape of something that I already appreciated. But the album also shows that Moor Mother, like billy woods, has the ability to twist that shape into new forms. In BRASS, Moor Mother and woods have made an indie rap album that hits like the toxic black cloud in DeLillo’s White Noise. It’ll fuck with you.
1. Benny The Butcher – “3:30 In Houston”
“I’m doing this shit from a wheelchair,” says Benny The Butcher, who was shot in the leg last month in the parking lot of a Houston Wal-Mart. Then he goes on to enumerate all the ways that it doesn’t even bother him: “Out the hospital to a private jet/ The bullet really ain’t damage nothing/ N***as would’ve been in my position, I bet they would’ve hit the panic button.” If I’d been in Benny The Butcher’s position, I can promise you that I would’ve hit the panic button. I would’ve never shown the kind of cold, threatening self-possession that Benny shows on this song.
2. Shootergang Kony – “Uber Lyft”
Shootergang Kony is great at bringing low-key energy, seething over the kinds of guttural Bay Area basslines that send most people into adrenaline-overcharge mode. Great Master Of Puppets hoodie, too.
3. Asian Doll – “Nunnadet Shit”
Asian Doll says she doesn’t give a fuck. She sounds like she really gives a fuck. That’s good news. This song is mean.
4. Ransom – “GoodTime” (Feat. Stove God Cooks & Ché Noir)
I clicked on this because I hoped it would somehow involve a sample of Daniel Lopatin’s breathlessly tense score from the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time. It does not. It’s still nasty. Stove God: “You know we get busy in the sunshine/ You know I’m sending MF DOOM to do the gunfire.”
5. AZ – “Different”
AZ is 48 years old, and he’s still doing that intricately guttural thousand-yard-stare Queensbridge shit, sounding energetic and dialed-in. I love that.