Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: billy woods & Kenny Segal Maps

Backwoodz Studioz/Fat Possum
Backwoodz Studioz/Fat Possum

This past Friday, Jack Harlow released a brief rappity-rap album that almost functioned as an apology for the weak-sauce pop-rap album that he released a year ago. Except it wasn’t an apology. Popular rappers never apologize. Harlow kicked off a round of weekend Twitter discourse when he called himself “the hardest white boy since the one who rapped about vomit and sweaters,” but the record’s real what-the-fuck moment came later, when Harlow rapped defensively about the entire idea of white privilege: “It must be my skin, I can’t think of any other reason I win/ I can’t think of an explanation, it can’t be the years of work I put in.” That whole moment feels like something that billy woods could’ve predicted in a stray half-a-bar lyric.

For years now, the New York rapper billy woods has been on an absolutely historic run. Both as a solo artist and as one half of Armand Hammer, woods has made a whole life’s work out of describing a broken, self-cannibalizing society, refracting disturbing realities through prisms of immaculate language. The experience of listening to a billy woods album for the first time can be overwhelming. On most of his solo records, woods works with a single producer, and he favors avant-garde instrumentals that rarely function as standard rap beats. Instead, woods creates his own rhythms, delivering burly and percussive bars so intricately worded that you have to listen with your finger hovering over the pause and rewind buttons. A single line might be so loaded with meaning that you need to take a moment to process it, and while your brain teases out some of the knots, woods has already growled out another five or six things that will demand future analysis.

There’s no best billy woods album. All of woods’ work exists along the same continuum, the individual pieces adding up to something greater. But the moment where woods’ work truly knocked me sideways was Hiding Places, his 2019 LP with the LA-based producer Kenny Segal. Segal’s ominous, clanking beats brought out woods’ most apocalyptic visions, and that album has stuck with me ever since. Four years later, woods and Segal have reconnected for Maps, their second album together, but the perspective has changed. While billy woods’ world remains inhospitable and bleak, he’s experienced forms of success that he might’ve never envisioned. He’s not famous now, but he can now rap from the perspective of someone who gets flown out to play music festivals in Bratislava. When your life changes like that, the world begins to look different.

Much of Maps is inspired by billy woods’ life as a touring musician, which has offered woods whole new ways to feel scattered and out of place. On “FaceTime,” the album’s only advance single, woods and Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring trade observations on what it’s like to be away from loved ones, doing something supposedly fun. It’s a situation that woods illustrates by sketching an image of carefree young revelers buzzing off of dubstep and Playboi Carti while woods himself is in a hotel room, “smoking alone in a cardigan, thinking of home.” There’s an entire song, “Soundcheck,” about woods refusing to spend his touring time loading in at venues: “Please be advised, I will not be at soundcheck, not on your life/ Just cut the mic on and kill the lights… I will not be at soundcheck/ Might watch the sunset over your city from a parapet or a park bench.” As the song progresses, woods flips an old line into something new: “Every victory pyrrhic/ Every live show, forget the lyric.”

There are straight-up tour stories on Maps: “I actually took a $300 Uber to a show/ Asleep in the back like Future, might as well be a Maybach/ Showed up with nothing but a computer, let’s go.” Success allows woods rare glimpses of peace: “For a brief sweet moment, it was nothing in the thought bubble.” But success has also given woods a new kind of disconnect: “Crabs in the bucket, how the fuck I escape them claws?/ Survivor’s guilt with a side of buyer’s remorse/ I’m home, but my mind be wandering off.” And when woods is back home in New York, the city’s not the same. His old weed spot is now an expensive designer boutique, and he’s got to start plotting his exit: “It’s gonna get gentrified, I’m not tryna leave it empty-handed/ Blue-eyed White Walkers in King’s Landing.”

Kenny Segal’s production on Maps dances around that strange combination of comfort and anxiety. Live instrumentation and samples float, but the drums, when they’re even present, lurch sideways, never falling into the old head-nod patterns. Those beats never dissolve into discordance, but they exist within the same dread-fog as woods’ lyrics. The guests on Maps reflect woods’ come-up. He’s still working with established allies like ShrapKnel, Quelle Chris, and his Armand Hammer partner Elucid, but he’s also teaming up with some of underground-rap history’s elite figures. “Waiting Around” gives us the dizzying spectacle of billy woods and Aesop Rock trading verses, both offering up so much dense imagery that I’m nowhere near untangling it. On “Year Zero,” woods delivers one of his darkest bursts of despair: “We poison everything we touch/ Withered and died/ Burn it down with us inside/ Burn it to the ground, make sure we don’t survive.” Then Danny Brown comes screeching in — “Check!” — and reality suddenly shifts.

There are so many striking lines on Maps, so many pieces of pure language that stick in my memory like thorns. There’s billy woods imagining the people surveilling him: “Electric fence, bigass satellite dish pointed at the sky/ So much tape hiss, FBI agents narrow they eyes, frustrated, asking to be reassigned/ Been on this N-word for months/ I think it’s all just rhymes.” There’s woods explaining the new mutations of the surveillance state: “No need for stop and frisk, it’s cameras everywhere, they got your IG feed.” There’s woods’ description of unrestful nights: “I don’t go to sleep, I tread water until I sink.” Throughout, the dread is suffocating to the point where it almost seems fantastical, but it’s not paranoia when they’re really out to get you.

The last verse on Maps might be the most crushing. After Elucid’s verse on the album closer “As The Crow Flies,” billy woods paints a picture of himself at a park with his son, experiencing the worst kind of epiphany: “I watch him grow, wondering how long I got to live.” That’s a question that occurs to every new parent. I can only imagine how much harder it hits when you’re billy woods, when you’ve built a whole career on explaining the ways that the world has been trying to kill you. The verse is short and fragmented, as if woods can’t bear to finish the thought. Sometimes, it’s all too much. Once again, billy woods turns that sense of overwhelm into thorny, difficult, transcendent art. Once again, he squeezes his own stress until it sings.

Maps is out 5/5 on Backwoodz Studioz/Fat Possum.

Other albums of note out this week:
• Drain’s Living Proof
• The Smashing Pumpkins’ Atum: A Rock Opera In Three Acts
• Westerman’s An Inbuilt Fault
• Michael Cormier-O’Leary’s Anything Can Be Left Behind
• SBTRKT’s The Rat Road
• Conway The Machine’s Won’t He Do It
• Jeromes Dream’s The Gray In Between
• The Lemon Twigs’ Everything Harmony
• Greg Mendez’s self-titled album
• Rodney Crowell’s The Chicago Sessions
• Jenny Owen Youngs’ from the forest floor
• Emily King’s Special Occasion
• Grandson’s I Love You, I’m Trying
• SQÜRL’s Silver Haze
• The Album Leaf’s Future Falling
• Atmosphere’s So Many Realities Exist Simultaneously
• yMusic’s self-titled album
• LA Priest’s Fase Luna
• Dave Lombardo’s Rites Of Percussion
• IDK’s F65
• OhGeesy’s Geesyworld 2
• Justin Moore’s Stray Dog
• Duran Jones’s Wait Til I Get Over
• Nanna’s How To Start A Garden
• Gord Downie & Bob Rock’s Lustre Parfait
• felicita’s Spalarkle
• April March & Staplin’s April March Meets Staplin
• The Bollweevils’ Essential
• Olivia Jean’s Raving Ghost
• 7ebra’s Bird Hour
• Immaterial Possession’s Mercy Of The Crane Folk
• Olivia Jean’s Raving Ghost
• Fascinator’s Lovesongs
• Peter One’s Come Back To Me
• French 79’s Teenagers
• Nightmarer’s Deformity Adrift
• Claire Rosinkranz’s Just Because
• Logan Halstead’s Dark Black Coal
• ARTEMIS’ In Real Time
• Hyeena’s Freedom From The Default
• Sue Clayton’s Rookie
• Euglossine’s Strawberries In Rain
• Ed Sheeran’s
• Jidenna’s Me You & God
• Unearth’s The Wretched; The Ruinous
• 79.5’s self-titeld album
• Spinebreaker’s Cavern Of Inoculated Cognition EP
• Flasher’s In My Myth EP
• Armani White’s Return To Casablanco EP

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