10 Essential Backwoodz Albums

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best Backwoodz albums

Independent hip-hop label Backwoodz put out its first CD-R 20 years ago, which also happened to be the debut solo release from billy woods, who founded the label. For 20 years, it’s gradually built up a body of work that’s indisputably among the best in independent hip-hop today, from the abstract to the immediate, the haunting to the incendiary. And their streak of late has been unstoppable. A pretty hefty batch of recent releases from the label have ended up as recent favorites, from Armand Hammer’s Haram to the newly released billy woods and Kenny Segal album Maps, as well as last year’s Aethiopes—which we named Album of the Year.

As the label hits a major milestone in the midst of a fertile creative period that’s been on something of a five-year high, we present a selection of 10 of the best Backwoodz albums as a primer on its two decades of hip-hop innovation—one per artist, but don’t stop there, of course.

best hip-hop albums of 2022 Akai Solo

AKAI SOLO – Spirit Roaming

At times, Spirit Roaming resembles an exercise in existential catharsis. AKAI SOLO raps in an insistent, passionate monotone, like there’s too much to say in not enough time; too many weighty emotions to untangle. It can be a chaotic and exhausting listen, an intense stream-of-consciousness from a restless, searching lyricist. But, AKAI SOLO is never too self-serious. Spirit Roaming’s spiritual explorations are brought back to earth with frequent references to anime and video games. Soundtracked by an assortment of underground producers, the record feels like the rap equivalent of a painter’s notebook; an absorbing mess of sketches, unfocused, unfiltered, and deeply personal. – Noah Sparkes

Listen: Bandcamp

best backwoodz albums armand hammer

Armand Hammer – Shrines

Shrines is the sound of things falling into place. billy woods and Elucid’s previous LP’s as Armand Hammer were dense, murky and monolithic affairs. Shrines is no less complex, but it gloriously expands Armand Hammer’s color palette. This eruption of expressionism shaves off the opaque textures of the duo’s previous albums and reveals layers of nuanced color. The rhymes are as abstract as ever, rife with religious allusions (“The Eucharist”), capitalist critiques (“Slewfoot”) and real-life horror (“Flavor Flav”). Killer guest spots from the likes of AKAI Solo, Pink Siifu, R.A.P. Ferreira and Moor Mother are the cherry on the cake, each contribution only underlining Shrines as one of the finest avant-garde rap albums released in recent years. – Tom Morgan

Listen: Bandcamp

best backwoodz albums defcee and messiah musik

Defcee & Messiah Musik – Trapdoor

To date, Defcee’s released only one record with Backwoodz, a full-length collaboration with Messiah Musik, who just last year teamed up with founder billy woods on encore essential Church. On Trapdoor, however, the duo offer up a sleeper hit of an emcee-producer pairing, Messiah’s intoxicatingly gloomy productions—heavy on twinkling piano and noir atmosphere—backing Defcee’s richly detailed imagery. Contaminated crime scenes, prayer hands with Freddie Krueger claws, self-personification as a golem—it’s all part and parcel of Defcee’s atypical, awe-inspiring lyrical approach. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Bandcamp

Elucid I Told Bessie review

ELUCID – I Told Bessie

There’s an astonishing physicality to ELUCID’s rapping. Syllables burst through the speakers in commanding, bassy tones, plosive and diaphragmatic. His heavy enunciation becomes a kind of additional percussion. Lyrically, he’s similarly concerned with the rhythms of his language. In the opener, he’s “a dancer in the dark, running tangents off the mark”. On the stunning “Betamax”, he’s “spiraling on [his] square, pushing air, pointed toe, getting higher.” But this emphasis on the visceral comes at no cost to the depth of the writing. Throughout, the lyrics are dense, funny, referential, and frequently beautiful. I Told Bessie is a must-listen from one of hip-hop’s best. – Noah Sparkes

Listen: Bandcamp

best backwoodz albums fielded

Fielded – Demisexual Lovelace

The rare release on Backwoodz that’s not explicitly a hip-hop record, Fielded’s Demisexual Lovelace—following a previous release on Deathbomb Arc and some self-released records—brought a new kind of voice to the roster. More rooted in pop and R&B in her approach, Fielded lends her intoxicating vocal prowess to songs defined by hazy production and gauzy ambience. There are, in fact, appearances by billy woods and ELUCID on Demisexual Lovelace, though Fielded’s dulcet pipes provide an immediately arresting presence through this collection of nocturnal atmosphere and vibes for days. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Bandcamp

moor mother jazz codes review

Moor Mother & billy woods – BRASS

Moor Mother’s music seems to exist in some haunted otherworld. Her collaboration with billy woods on the extraordinary 2020 album BRASS drags us into an especially eerie region of this spirit-filled plane. The album channels a kind of cosmic mysticism even when addressing legacies of colonialism and systemic racism. Tracks like “Arkeology” and “Scary Hours” viscerally unpick the myriad violence and horrors that the Black diaspora have long been subjected to, while the abrasive production of “Gang for a Day” and “Maroons” drag us deeper into this mesmerizing and confrontational realm. It’s a challenging trip, but one that reaps endless rewards. – Tom Morgan

Listen: Bandcamp

ShrapKnel – ShrapKnel

The duo of Curly Castro and PremRock are two for two with their dark, disorienting brand of hip-hop abstraction, most recently delivering a psychedelic dystopia with last year’s Metal Lung. But their debut still stands as one of the most arresting releases in the Backwoodz catalog, rife with apocalyptic visions set to explosive production from “sound terrorist” Elucid, who steps to the other side of the mic to showcase his skills as a beatmaker (rife with some fire post-punk samples). Indeed, while Elucid’s other project might be the flagship duo on the label, Castro and PremRock more than hold their own as a duo to be reckoned with, offering cleverly chilling wordplay throughout one of the heaviest rap records in recent memory. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Bandcamp

SKECH185 & Jeff Markey – He Left Nothing for the Swim Back

SKECH185’s debut on Backwoodz was his guest appearance on Armand Hammer’s Paraffin, which was the only guest feature on the album—the New York-by-way-of-Chicago rapper tends to leave an outsized impact. From the first drone of the opening title track on He Left Nothing for the Swim Back, that impact is unmistakable. Paired with Jeff Markey’s menacingly urgent and tense production, SKECH navigates a dystopia of feelgood corporate activism, tragedy as entertainment, fallen idols and burning landscapes with urgency and gallows humor—backed with an appropriate soundtrack of synth-laden darkwave and industrial and eerie piano-laced boom bap. In “Up to Speed,” SKECH asks repeatedly, “Did I go hard enough?” As if this is even a question. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Bandcamp

Steel Tipped Dove – Call Me When You’re Outside

Steel Tipped Dove has produced tracks on records from the likes of billy woods and Shrapknel, as well as non-Backwoodz artists such as Astronautalis and R.A.P. Ferreira (fka Milo). But his full-length Call Me When You’re Outside, featuring guests such as Pink Siifu and The Koreatown Oddity in addition to Backwoodz MVPs billy woods and ELUCID, is all about his talents as a beatmaker and builder of atmosphere. Half composed of songs with guest emcees and the other half comprising instrumentals of those same tracks, Call Me When You’re Outside emphasizes Dove’s knack for crafting immersive sounds overall, his all-star friends serving to add a little character to instrumentals already defined by their stunning depth. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Bandcamp

best backwoodz albums billy woods

billy woods & Kenny Segal – Hiding Places

In the late 19th century, Detroit’s Brush Park district was known as “Little Paris,” renowned for its lavish, ornate architecture and wealthy inhabitants. By the 1980s, the state of Brush Park was best epitomized by a now-demolished house known as “Slumpy”. This decrepit building—the William Livingstone House—finds itself on the cover of Hiding Places, an album similarly situated within a vision of economic decline and imminent collapse. Whether it’s the recurrent images of addiction and poverty, grim recollections of war, or acerbic observations of the mundane, this is poetry born of a structure lurching towards implosion. Aided by Kenny Segal’s warped, claustrophobic production, woods crafts a world of justified cynicism, dark humor, and gut-wrenching honesty. In his own words, ”this is America, it’s not for the weaker stomach.” – Noah Sparkes

Listen: Bandcamp

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