Joel Biswas is rummaging for old NES games in your dad’s storage space.
Billy Woods is the rapper that America needs but can’t face. The son of a Zimbabwean revolutionary and a college professor, he blends the doomy paranoia of vintage Def Jux and Rhymesayers, the stylistic heroics of Adam Curtis and the moral inquiry of David Foster Wallace into music that is stark, urgent and unashamedly literary. His sound is an exhilarating wave of ideas and colors, awash in moral dread and punctuated with humor as black as bile. Over the last decade, he’s quietly mined his own seam of art-rap auterism, writing raps that shed and accrete layers like an onion or a snake, polishing his wealth of source material into a diamond-hard style whose facets obscure as much as they reveal – all delivered in a commanding basso profundo that is equal parts Chuck D and Scarface.
With Hiding Places – his collaborative album with LA’s Low End Theory stalwart Kenny Segal, more than a decade of slow-burn excellence reaches a breath-taking creative peak. Evolving organically from the sessions that produced Armand Hammer’s steely 2018 masterpiece Paraffin, Woods’ writing and rapping has never been so tightly coiled as it is here. It is delivered from a place that’s both a refuge and prison, anchored by startling fragments of autobiographical detail and haunted by the idea of pigeons coming home to roost.
Whether “copping legal weed from fake hole in the wall”, waiting for Donald Glover outside the Dakota, or watching “four million USD hoverin’ over some mud huts,” Woods is Sphinx-like, writing and rapping with a restless God’s eye view that constantly doubles back and interrupts itself to fixate on bleak ironies.
Opening track “SpongeBob” weaves together geopolitical menace and corner-store politics over a dope-sick bass and guitar figure to detail a chance encounter between a shell-shocked Afghan vet and a hollow-eyed addict united by prepaid calling cards and Fourth of July fireworks popping in the background. Are they the same person? The narrator is a mix of Gil- Scott Heron nodding out on a Harlem stoop, Kissinger brooding over of a map of Africa and Woods himself, sitting saturnine and “waiting to get fished out the hole like Saddam.” Segal’s production is a virtuoso affair that frames Woods’ ideas like arthouse cinematography. It’s flawlessly sequenced and at turns poised, elegiac and sly.
The verse-by-verse beat flips of “Speak Gently” weld noise rock, Avant-jazz and boom-bap into a suite that’s both eerie and urgent, while “a day in a week in a year” is sumptuous late-night electronica. The woozy, reverb drenched kicks and minor key fuzz on tracks like “Checkpoints” push Woods to one of the album’s many operatic crescendos: “Pace the palace wing/ dethroned king jump when the phone ring/ Egyptian cotton, but you can’t sleep, not a wink.”
Over the lilting flute of “Houthi,” he wanders the project hallways of his mind, veering between nightmare and reverie. He’s morbidly fascinated by the arbitrary, paper-thin margins of fate. On the stunning denouement of “Speak Gently” he pours over the broken lives of past tenants in his building leaving behind unpaid bills and summons, almost salaciously. On “Steak Knives” he muses on his own commercial failure before flipping Outkast’s “Elevators” in an exchange with an interlocutor lost to street dealings: “I replied I been goin’ through the same things that he had/ But that was a lie, I could see he doin’ bad.”
There’s no empathy here; only the realisation that the exchange could yield a dope line. Life is a game of inches. The album’s searing final track “Red Dust” sees Woods face down psychic ghosts for reckoning that is both personal and cosmic. Is he saved or consumed? It’s impossible to know. Hiding Places is a masterpiece pulsing with ideas and defiant energy without offering easy answers, the chronicle of a future foretold where the past remains uncertain.