billy woods & Kenny Segal : Maps

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best albums of 2023 billy woods maps

Give billy woods the space to spin a yarn and he’ll weave it into a labyrinth. His narratives navigate the entertaining absurdities and sometimes cold realities of existence through metaphors and minotaurs, with no dead ends, just corridors that spiral deeper inward. In woods’ travelogues—told through vignettes from the past, hazy memories and retellings of passing moments rendered in saturated hues—the only way is through, even without the clarity of knowing what awaits him wherever he’s headed.

Maps, the emcee’s second full-length collaboration with producer Kenny Segal, employs the destination as a McGuffin on an alternately affecting, funny and introspective road-movie sequence that woods has referred to as a “hero’s journey.” It’s an odyssey depicted through the bleary eyes of a touring artist, Bratislava to Utrecht, dispatches from Szechuan restaurants and greasy spoons, backstage debauchery and economy class seats. Yet even when placed in the framework of an epic saga, we mostly catch woods as a grounded observer in moments that elicit bewilderment and passing amusement alike. On “The Layover,” woods states he’s “at home when the road’s not paved/Little piece of yard, couple goats graze,” though that’s rarely where he finds himself, capturing curious, profound, amusing and bemusing details along every detour, thruway and air route.

The colorful air-safety instructions artwork on the cover of Maps is the first indication that woods and Segal are no longer shining a flashlight through the attics, crawl spaces or the crumbling facade of Detroit’s William Livingstone House as they did on 2019’s Hiding Places. The sense of constant movement here is both figurative and literal, from the antagonistic dinner party with the neighbors in brief, boisterous opener “Kenwood Speakers” into the complimentary in-air beverage service of “Soft Landing,” wherein anxious, invasive stream-of-consciousness thoughts give way to a rare moment of peace: “For a brief, sweet, moment it was nothing in the thought bubble/From up here the lakes is puddles.” He seizes opportunities for escape from set-time schedules on the cinematic, dreamlike “Soundcheck,” shrugging that he “might check in to keep ’em honest” but places a higher priority on watching the sunset from a park bench. He’s at turns annoyed and enchanted, lost in the moment or temporarily out of body, each dropping at an equal rate from an altitude of 40,000 feet.

Segal’s production on Maps is less sickly and dreary than Hiding Places, yet still tense and disorienting, the blur of the road captured in vivid, psychedelic hues—from the distorted snap of beats on “Kenwood Speakers” to the boom-bap piano haze of “Rapper Weed.” “Blue Smoke” puts a more avant garde spin on jazz rap, with its frantic walking bassline underlining woods’ lamentations about cool heads not prevailng: “No disrespect to your mans and them, but I’ll actually do it live/Learned the hard way, motherfuckers’ll run in shooting after we spent months trying to strategize.” Woozy ambiance permeates the first minute of “Babylon by Bus” before a cinematic break scores a standout guest rap from fellow Backwoodz emcees Shrapknel, and dystopian synths wallpaper the ominous this-world-is-ruined warning of “Year Zero” (“Kids, you and your friends gonna have to start again/It’s nothing you can do with us, we’re fucked up“) with a dynamite verse from Danny Brown for good measure.

Two-thirds of the way through this sojourn, woods is a bystander in a luxurious afterparty bacchanal on “FaceTime,” distracted by the thought of where he isn’t, but still lucid enough to capture the excess in detail: “Chunky rings, clunky shoes, lots of ink/Dudes who order everybody’s drink/Really I’m just waitin’ for my phone to ping.” Fittingly, he hands the chorus over to Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands, a road warrior in his own right that can sell the drama of the mundane haze of touring life better than anyone. But just a couple tracks later, actually home in “NYC Tapwater,” he’s happy to find tranquility and a purring cat in his lap, but paradoxically admits, “I miss this place ’til I’m back.” There’s no place like home, perhaps for better or worse, but in making the trek halfway around the world and back, woods finds a profound, subtle poetry in the sights, sounds and feelings of being anywhere else.

Label: Backwoodz

Year: 2023

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