Superman sucks. Spider-Man is a bitch.
But they both have day jobs.
Billy Woods has a day job. I don’t know what it is, but he has one. He released an album last year that took him on tour with Aesop Rock. He released an album last year that had kids praying that he would blaze up with them. He released an album last year that made no sense whatsoever on the first listen. And then it did. Then it made you feel like a herb for not loving it on the first listen.
But none of that matters. Because Billy Woods has a day job.
Superman isn’t serious. But Clark Kent is. Because Clark Kent still has to pay rent. He can save the world from General Zod, then wake up at 6:30am and work at a newspaper the next day. Spider-Man has been cloned, his uncle and girlfriend have been murdered, his best friend wants to kill him. And he still has to wake up and go to an office. Peter Parker still has to pay rent.
Billy Woods is not a superhero. But to his fans and to other rappers, he is a monolith. He is the David Simon of indie rap – his stories are dense, coded, rotten, heartbreaking, thoughtful, and meticulous. He gives you no easy way in or out. Think back to when you first saw season one of The Wire – it was work. Pick up Baltimore slang, 30+ characters, endless one-upsmanship between police and criminal, governmental policy, drug spots, and fascinating interpersonal conflicts. No backstory, no guide, no resolution. By Season 2, you understood what good ol’ fashioned po-lice was. And then things got more complicated.
Dour Candy, the follow-up to last year’s pipebomb History Will Absolve Me, is Woods’ self-described “lifestyle album”. His lifestyle is filled with forgotten ballplayers, drugs, Mike Tyson, Spike Lee joints, Richard Price novels, BBC news, and girls you’re sick of seeing. Blockhead does all the beats, and once again shines brightest when working with a rapper who thinks a lot about stuff (see his excellent joint album Capture the Sun with Illogic from earlier this year). It’s “headphone rap” that never lets you relax.
Joining Woods are otherground hive keepers Elucid, Open Mike Eagle, Moka Only, and Aesop Rock. They’re on that Ralph Ellison, loved or hated in large doses because there is no indie rap infrastructure to throw confetti at them. Natives become foreigners again.
Like David Simon’s work, Dour Candy assumes you’re smart enough to pick up the world he walks without coddling. The album is semi-conceptual and autobiographical. Matchstick memories. His characters deal with sex, violence, and re-ups. Headlining shows. Crosstown beefs. Police pecking at the heels. Garter flashes from women short on time. Wayward kids who need help with their homework. Stop and searches. Drug dealers who don’t dream of fat yachts, just making it from Monday to Tuesday.
This album is not a victory lap, because nothing has been won. You light a Cuban, then a bird shits on your shoulder. McNulty and Bunk put away Avon Barksdale, then a storage unit of dead hookers fall on their lap. Superman saves the world then Clark Kent has a soggy sandwich for lunch. Spiderman kisses MJ upside down, but Peter Parker can’t get the ass. Why celebrate yourself when nothing has really changed?
For the second year in the row, Billy Woods made a rap album that can’t be compared to anything else. He’s got kids dying for him to take the mask off. He’s got the biggest rapper from Def Jux on SnapChat. And he’s getting up and going to work tomorrow. This album takes work. But if it’s not work, then it won’t work.