For prolific emcee billy woods, obfuscation comes with the territory. He’s released 10 albums in 20 years—plus another five as one half of the duo Armand Hammer—all without revealing his birth name or distributing a press photo that actually shows his face. His rapid-fire lyrics are often dense and rife with vivid imagery that’s not always easy to untangle, though it’s not necessarily his intention to blanket his songs in a verbal fog; “I’m trying to be more clear, without really showing it,” he told Bandcamp in 2019. When woods commits to a topic—whether uncovering ideas of the taboo on last year’s Haram, or childhood and enduring everyday struggles on 2019’s Hiding Places—he explores it in both vivid and abstract detail, offering up snapshots of varying degrees of focus along every stop on his train of thought.
On his tenth album Aethiopes, woods has found another apt counterpart to his shadow-realm hip-hop narratives in producer Preservation, a similarly innovative and enigmatic beatmaker behind records like the Hong Kong crate-digging concept Eastern Medicine, Western Illness and his Manchurian Candidate-inspired collaboration with Ka, Days With Dr. Yen Lo. Where woods often takes himself out of the frame, referencing the likes of Camus and John Carpenter in order to draw focus in on the systems that fail us, grotesque verité surrealism or a well-earned sense of paranoia, Preservation makes that darkness corporeal, rendering those haunting narratives in grainy cinematic film noir.
That uneasy surrealism sets in early on Aethiopes, as woods surmises his next-door neighbor might be the former head of state of Ethiopia, who was later tried on charges of genocide: “I think Mengistu Haile Mariam is my neighbor/Whoever it is moved in and put an automated gate up/Repainted brick walls atop which now cameras rotated/By eight, the place dark, one light burn later/Razor wire like a slinky.” It’s hard to know whether this is drawn from real experience—woods lived in Zimbabwe as a child, where Mariam indeed found asylum after being exiled, but the fascination is in the ambiguity. Preservation, meanwhile, cleverly scores the scene with a sample of some vintage Ethio-jazz, tying together each of its thematic threads—the album’s title included.
Those threads often concern ideas of Africa and Blackness, both as concept and reality, and the othering that inevitably accompanies them, as he recently explained to The Fader. The juxtaposition of woods’ sometimes jarring imagery with Preservation’s hypnotic production leads to some of the rapper’s most captivating work yet, as on the horn-driven “No Hard Feelings,” which opens with woods contrasting lines about the Challenger shuttle explosion with images of burned Black bodies. And on “NYNEX,” one of the album’s most tense standouts—as well as one of the most guest-packed, with Quelle Chris, Denmark Vessey and woods’ Armand Hammer teammate Elucid—woods lays out the deflating reality of where the advancement of society has led us: “Quinine powder and alcohol, stir until dissolved/The future isn’t flying cars, it’s Rachel Dolezal absolved.”
Though woods is the central voice and endlessly captivating, he’s often inclined to open up the floor to the varied names on his long list of collaborators, whether passing the mic to experimental rap icon Mike Ladd on “Christine” or giving Shinehead space to deliver a Bob Marley hook on “Protoevangelium.” El-P and Breeze Brewin spit at a heart-pounding pace in the knife’s-edge highlight “Heavy Water.” Though it’s Boldy James who delivers one of the strongest one-liners on the record on “Sauvage,” a track carrying the same kind of sleepless pathos as his recent Bo Jackson, reflecting, “Dug down in my soul and did some soul searchin’/All I found was a police report for a missin’ person.”
Where an album like Armand Hammer’s Haram employed more startling sounds and imagery in what felt like a refusal to fade into the background, Aethiopes carries more of a consistent sense of creeping dread. For woods, the idea of dystopia isn’t the slick Hollywood depiction of cyberpunk but a society that slowly loses its ability to function and a populace that gradually ceases to give a shit. It’s frequently dark, sometimes very funny and often uncomfortable, but it’s impossible to look away, in part because woods captures everything in stunning detail and in part because Preservation’s crates contain sounds that blow woods’ narratives and social commentary into widescreen productions. Though he seldom offers a clear glimpse behind the cloak, billy woods remains one of hip-hop’s most arresting soothsayers.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.