Everybody thought Paul Thompson was making a compilation.
Billy Woods once explained to me that the title of his comeback album was a joke. Not entirely—just like Castro, he meant it. History Will Absolve Me. Unlike he Castro, he knew that history might not. He put Mugabe on the cover. He made a muddy intro. Broke up on impact, I swam from the wreckage. Then: Willie Green.
The first full song on History is called “Crocodile Tears.” It doesn’t chase Woods down his familiar rabbit holes, and it doesn’t try to update him for the second Obama term. It’s built on snarling electric guitars. It’s an abrasive, even triumphant opener; later, Green helps round out the album with bloodlettings like “The Wake,” unhinged character studies like “Bill Cosby,” and a handful of other cuts. But “Crocodile Tears” is the weirdest, most ambitious production decision on the album, and it knocks you off-balance for the rest, like Gene Wilder limping into a somersault. No ordinary producer would dream it up, much less push it to the top of the program.
Willie Green is not ordinary. He had a drum machine at eight, was sneaking into clubs to play at fifteen. The Boston-bred, Brooklyn-based Berklee grad has spent the last decade-plus building a resume as one of the independent rap world’s premier producers. His new album, Doc Savage, was five years in the making, and stands as one of the year’s densest, most musically rewarding records, one that’s sure to reconfigure the record books ever so slightly.
Doc Savage was a renaissance man rendered in pulp magazines, “a physician, scientist, adventurer, inventor, explorer, researcher” and musician, trained since birth by a team of scientists and an overbearing father who hoped to fashion a sort of superhuman. Green has a similarly universal feel for the recording studio (dig up his engineering credits when you get a second), and you can make out his finger prints throughout the LP, which is anchored by a who’s-who of the indie rap world. From folding in live instruments to coaching up vocal performances, Green unites all his roles with a clarity of purpose rarely ascribed to producers who haven’t priced themselves into Bel-Air.
E.g.- the two-part “Red Snow” suite, wherein Has-lo sets up with an anxious series of chants and aphorisms and Woods knocks down with tangents about friends with poor sexual judgment and Le Petit Prince. “Classical music,” the latter raps, “no need to go out on a limb.”
For “The Phantom City,” Green rounds up Zesto, Uncommon Nasa, and Barrie McLain. It sounds like the vocals from a knotty, gritty B-side over an instrumental break from one of those makeshift rooftop clubs with Christmas lights strung everywhere; it could be a remix if the syllables didn’t land so perfectly. Or take “Haunted Ocean,” where Curly Castro chases the time signature all over the Pro Tools session.
The component parts keep morphing. “The Sargasso Ogre” turns stadium-rock drums into neo-noir; “The Yellow Cloud” lets a somber piano line congeal into an M.O.P deep cut. “The Man of Bronze” is music for the third act of a movie, where the hero wears a ski mask and the villains all wear blue.
Denmark Vessey nearly runs away with the marquee. His performance on “The Majii” has him slipping in and out of accents and cadences and other peoples’ psyches. And yet as vicious as the Detroit native is, Green still comes out shining: the beat sounds like it’s stitched together by distortion. It’s like a transmission from a faraway planet that got mucked up in transit, and ended up meaner than the original.
There are two tracks that threaten “Majii” for the crown. The first is “The Feathered Octopus,” which pairs Green’s Backwoodz Studioz compatriot Elucid with Open Mike Eagle. (Green produced Eagle’s breakout hit, “Nightmares.”) Elucid remembers XXXXXL white tees and rationed french fries; Mike follows Willie into a brass band coda that blows up the song’s structure. Then there’s “The Thousand Headed Man,” where Elucid and Woods slip on their Armand Hammer hoodies. The former raps, at one point:
“Shortcuts through open lots
No shirt—slap-boxing in the street
I am who I seek”
He goes on to detail his peers walking around with toothbrushes to keep their shoes clean, and to say he “caught a body East of Eden.” It’s the only moment on Doc Savage where you forget who the star is, which is high praise when you remember Milo’s mp3 deconstruction on “The Mental Wizard” or Henry Canyons’ unblinking turn on “The Lost Oasis.” Willie Green has done what few artists are able to—he’s channeled his various, sometimes disparate talents into a single, cogent work. History will be kind.