© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

It's time to get on the billy woods bandwagon

On <em>Maps</em>, an album-length collaboration with the producer Kenny Segal, rapper billy woods (in the photo above obscuring his face, as is his custom) offers the collected wisdom of two decades worth of journeys.
B.A. Stubbs
Courtesy of the artist
On Maps, an album-length collaboration with the producer Kenny Segal, rapper billy woods (in the photo above obscuring his face, as is his custom) offers the collected wisdom of two decades worth of journeys.

When Tolkien said not all those who wander are lost, he was talking specifically about billy woods. Across two decades worth of wonky, wordy music, wandering has informed much of the rapper's best writing. His excellent new album with Kenny Segal, Maps, wrings insights out of transitory moments. Not just the idle time spent between one place and another, though that is accounted for; it is also the itinerant lessons learned touring, the wayfaring around a foreign place seeking something, the things the road reveals about home and the things you discover about yourself in unfamiliar territory. For woods, every fleeting experience, every in-between place, has something to offer.

When he considers his years spent living in Zimbabwe as a kid, in the wake of revolution, woods had no trouble seeing his father's birthplace as a second home, even as he felt and witnessed ostracism and craved American creature comforts. "There was not a lot of interpersonal violence, but there was state violence. There was no pizza. I would spend my Christmases in New York and I would dream about eating a bagel with cream cheese for the rest of the year, or like a slice of pepperoni pizza," he told No Bells in 2018. "Overall, there was good and bad everywhere I've ever been." This is how he appraises every space he enters, and the way he writes: with clear, open eyes. Later, he evokes another great writer, Cormac McCarthy, and the idea of paths chosen — questioning "a reality other than the reality that is," and if such a reality existing even matters. Wandering inspires such considerations, about routes pursued and ignored, alternate journeys that manifest different versions of ourselves living different lives, even if the other you is simply eating a bagel with cream cheese every day. But woods also understands that moving forward on the path you're on is paramount.

/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

Movement and displacement are recurring themes in the rapper's music, but his searching verses make clear he is actively observing and learning. To that end: woods seems to have reached an important threshold. Having been a pro rapper since 2002, he is ready to dispense all the wisdom he has picked up along the way, in language more listeners can decipher. Maps is his clearest, most engaging music. The bars are more pointed. The beats are more stimulating. It's not unlike Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. or Tyler, the Creator's Call Me When You Get Lost — a dynamic, audience-forward follow-up to an ambitious concept record that maintains the established level of technical excellence. Segal, who has helped woods obfuscate in the past, helps him process here with production that snaps and hums, and is less muted and grayscale. There haven't been many easy entry points into the woods catalog, but if ever there was a place to start paying attention, it's here, catching him en route to a more hospitable place.

The album scans as the accumulated wisdom of four decades worth of journeys, two of those spent scrawling penetrating raps. His rhymes on Maps bear the frankness of a weary pilgrim. "I'm old, I go in the booth like cocoon / Rappers' protégé's get too big, drift out of orbit, rogue moons / I be the only one laughing in the room, n****s unamused / I crack a smile at what you say is the truth," he raps on "Hangman." His raps have the fidgetiness that comes with long trips — at one point, he mentions a 10-hour layover in Chicago; a few songs later, he pops up in Bratislava and Utrecht — but these verses are just as much about the in-between moments where he's settled or settling. With woods, the text is always dense and super referential, riffing on high lit, pop culture and political science, as befitting the son of professors and a refugee.

But his work, even at its most cryptic, is not impenetrable, especially when he imparts what he is seeing. woods deploys a worldly, wily lyricism that is both erudite and streetwise. Few rappers have more to say. His verses overflow into the margins, setting scenes in asides. There is an underlying acuity that has marked nearly everything he's done since 2018. But this is a full-on master class, even for one of rap's greatest-ever penmen. In each verse on "The Layover," he threads a single rhyme scheme with each line building upon the last. "Black death, rubbernecking pale faces / Handkerchief soaked in perfume / Posthumous YouTube views / Lion at the bottom of a well looking up at a circle of blue," he raps. The wordplay there is as intense as it is amusing. There is, of course, the analogue at its center, drawing a parallel from the voyeurism surrounding police brutality to snooty bystanders during the Black Plague — the tension in such juxtapositions of modern and medieval, the entendre within (Black Death), the imagery at play and the irony of history repeating itself. In a verse that likely ends alluding to a Sanskrit fable, it is the perfect balance of knowable and arcane; just one of many that opens before the listener.

The songs on Maps, all of which are collaborations with the LA-based producer Kenny Segal, feel plainspoken without sacrificing the craftiness or the mystery at the core of the woods sound. That isn't to say this is any closer to pop's center — he has no interest in that sort of thing — but this is about as transparent as a rapper who hides his face can get. There is clearly a difference between personal and sociable, and his storytelling is not simply for sharing, it's for enlightening. For all of woods' epic pedagogy, the zingers are nearly endless. "Every time things going good or having a laugh / Have to remember God's a hater." Put that on a T-shirt. "It could be nuclear winter with an earthquake / The worst people'll wiggle out the rubble" belongs on a throw pillow. He can come off like a cynic, and maybe he is, but the humor cuts through the tension, and his knowingness has a shrugging sense of calm and durability.

Some of that calm is induced by woods' reliable travel companion: marijuana. He's at the Courtyard by Marriott bathroom, blowing it through the vents, or rolling a backwood in Amsterdam killing time. Most rappers will tell you that weed is crucial to any voyage, but woods goes further, treating it as a gateway to a space somewhere beyond the unfamiliar, or a self-sustaining comfort zone in any city. He raps about it like a little embassy of his own making. "Rapper Weed" feels like the chronicle of the dispensary ecosystem and the characters that navigate it. There is such clarity of thought and purpose it is as if his senses have been dialed up to eleven. On "Houdini," weed is the cushion on his day off, ushering him through a sensory experience that conjures perceptive imagery ("The nose is Pine-Sol and turpentine / But the taste remind me of Jamaican oranges that look like limes") and folkloric visions ("Walked into the forest filled with fear / Couldn't see it coming, but I could hear /Something lumbering near"). It invites strangeness and respite, fosters curiosity and appetite.

There's a nod to the late traveling chef, author and documentarian Anthony Bourdain that feels particularly apt ("Parts Unknown, at home when the road's not paved ... No Reservations, walked in like Bourdain"). Bourdain knew more than a thing or two about the road, and also about, as woods put it, "living the dream and dreaming of another life." In his book, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones, Bourdain wrote, "Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you." Though he's not the optimist Bourdain was, woods too knows the marks accumulate and that, together, they begin to tell a story. And he understands the power of a great bite. Food plays a key role in the ways that the rapper experiences and remembers the character of a place. It features heavily, in detail. Taste and smell are key elements of memory, and he uses delicious meals as a means to note the marks made, as Bourdain did. In their own way, these songs have the feel of great hole-in-the-wall spots — off the beaten path but life-affirming, a refuge from gentrifiers.

woods and Segal's previous full-length collaboration, the 2019 album Hiding Places, extolled the virtues of cover, full of craggy Segal beats that allowed woods' off-kilter flows to slink in and out of the crevices. The production was disorienting and slightly eerie, evoking the creaky, abandoned house in the album art — dank halls and rusted plumbing. It wasn't the horrors of James Wan; it was the horrors of The Last Black Man in San Francisco — less spectral, more infrastructural, hinting at not some ghostly presence but the squatters inside. The beats on woods' 2022 album Aethiopes, made by Preservation, were similarly unsettling, sometimes rickety in their construction or scanning more as dark ambient music. While many of the songs on Maps carry the dystopian buzz of Cold Vein era El-P beats, there is also more color and pulse to this record than the rapper's other recent releases. Several songs are jazzy. The single, "FaceTime," isn't far off from something for Griselda. Most billy woods albums don't have singles, they just drop, which implies at least some desire to reach more people this time. If it isn't a turn toward accessibility then it is, at the very least, a move away from turbulence.

The album winds down to a short, harrowing, beautiful final verse from woods to close "As the Crow Flies." After a more meditative opening verse from his Armand Hammer partner Elucid, woods takes a minute to home in on a single instant on the playground with his son. As he's pushing the child on the swing, he has a string of epiphanies — anything could happen to the boy at any time; it's a miracle that he is demonstrating greater consciousness every day; and woods isn't guaranteed a second to see him grow up. At eight lines, delivered in 20 seconds, the verse itself seems to mirror the 'blink and you'll miss it' nature of parenting, but everything about it is so in its right place that there's no doubt this is more about embracing joy, not resignation — about the power in even the most ephemeral moments. It is his simplest verse but also his gentlest and most moving. In it, the roads not taken pale in comparison to finding a home.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]