New York emcee billy woods and Philadelphia producer/poet/rapper Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, crossed paths twice in the span of a month in 2020. On “Ramesses II,” a highlight on Armand Hammer’s incredible Shrines, Moor Mother’s voice made for a natural fit alongside those of woods and his partner-in-rhyme Elucid (as well as guest emcee Earl Sweatshirt), swirling imagery of Nina Simone and Star Wars inside of psychedelic, anti-imperialist visions. But it wasn’t until the next month’s “Furies” that woods and Ayewa seemed to suggest something more was incubating. Released as part of the ongoing Adult Swim Singles series, “Furies” found the duo connecting cosmic dream sequences and surrealist rhymes against a dreamy loop from Sons of Kemet, bridging the gap between the former’s hardcore abstractions and the latter’s industrial poetry so seamlessly, it prompted the question of why it didn’t happen sooner.
With delayed gratification comes plentiful reward, and five months after the arrival of “Furies” comes BRASS, the first full-length collaboration between the two prolific, style-shifting hip-hop iconoclasts. Following a handful of avant garde jazz records, a noise rock collab and a sound collage experiment, it’s the first record of Ayewa’s in a while that’s a proper rap record, but as is the case with either of these artists, it’s never quite that simple. These songs feel as much like hallucinations as statements of intent. Their beats dissolve and dissipate as often as they boom and bap. The hooks aren’t the focus, and the realm is murky, but every word here leaves a mark.
Where woods’ delivery is stoic and unblinking and Ayewa’s as musical as it is jagged, what they share in common is a stunning lyrical density. Some of the lines on BRASS will take a few listens to untangle (“Caravans criss-crossing dunes, and ants crawling on the face of the moon/And 599 Trelawny Maroons marooned in the snow and gloom“). Some of them are staggering on first listen (“Came to the show with the severed head of a demon/Screamin’ ‘y’all ain’t fuckin’ with me, I ain’t fuckin’ for free!‘”). And throughout, the duo offer snapshots of an America steeped in violence and oppression, delivered with a playfulness that never quite overshadows the real darkness at the heart of the record but still spruces them up with a bit of flash and flair.
In sound, however, BRASS is among the most otherworldly creations to bear either billy woods or Moor Mother’s name, and that’s saying a lot. Though “Furies,” which opens the record, isn’t an entirely misleading introduction to the pair’s surrealist sound world, it has a lightness that’s nowhere to be heard on tracks like the grimy “Rock Cried” or the more cacophonous “Mom’s Gold,” the only track featuring production from Moor Mother herself. The closest thing to proper boom bap here is probably The Alchemist’s beat for “Giraffe Hunts,” but the ominous, crackling sample feels more like something you’d hear on a Caretaker record than a Freddie Gibbs album. BRASS, even at its most immediate, seems to touch the spectral and incorporeal.
After a year in which both woods and Ayewa made the most of their offstage time and delivered some of the most compelling material of their careers to date, BRASS reaffirms them both as compelling and necessary voices in hip-hop in 2021. That’s in large part because they often challenge what a rap record can be—there are moments here that genuinely slap without even so much as the presence of a snare drum. But more importantly they create music that doesn’t so much go for earworms as hauntings, crafting a work of gravitas in an anti-gravity atmosphere.
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.