‘Maps,’ the rapper’s new album, is a grasp class from one of many style’s greatest writers
B.A. Stubbs/Courtesy of the artist
When Tolkien mentioned not all those that wander are misplaced, he was speaking particularly about billy woods. Throughout 20 years price of wonky, wordy music, wandering has knowledgeable a lot of the rapper’s greatest writing. His wonderful new album with Kenny Segal, Maps, wrings insights out of transitory moments. Not simply the idle time spent between one place and one other, although that’s accounted for; additionally it is the itinerant classes discovered touring, the wayfaring round a international place looking for one thing, the issues the street reveals about dwelling and the belongings you uncover about your self in unfamiliar territory. For woods, each fleeting expertise, each in-between place, has one thing to supply.
When he considers his years spent dwelling in Zimbabwe as a child, within the wake of revolution, woods had no hassle seeing his father’s birthplace as a second dwelling, at the same time as he felt and witnessed ostracism and craved American creature comforts. “There was not a variety of interpersonal violence, however there was state violence. There was no pizza. I might spend my Christmases in New York and I might dream about consuming a bagel with cream cheese for the remainder of the yr, or like a slice of pepperoni pizza,” he advised No Bells in 2018. “Total, there was good and unhealthy in every single place I’ve ever been.” That is how he appraises each area he enters, and the way in which he writes: with clear, open eyes. Later, he evokes one other nice author, Cormac McCarthy, and the thought of paths chosen — questioning “a actuality apart from the fact that’s,” and if such a actuality current even issues. Wandering conjures up such concerns, about routes pursued and ignored, alternate journeys that manifest completely different variations of ourselves dwelling completely different lives, even when the opposite you is just consuming a bagel with cream cheese day-after-day. However woods additionally understands that transferring ahead on the trail you are on is paramount.
Motion and displacement are recurring themes within the rapper’s music, however his looking out verses clarify he’s actively observing and studying. To that finish: woods appears to have reached an necessary threshold. Having been a professional rapper since 2002, he is able to dispense all of the knowledge he has picked up alongside the way in which, in language extra listeners can decipher. Maps is his clearest, most participating music. The bars are extra pointed. The beats are extra stimulating. It isn’t in contrast to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. or Tyler, the Creator’s Name Me When You Get Misplaced — a dynamic, audience-forward follow-up to an formidable idea document that maintains the established stage of technical excellence. Segal, who has helped woods obfuscate up to now, helps him course of right here with manufacturing that snaps and hums, and is much less muted and grayscale. There have not been many straightforward entry factors into the woods catalog, but when ever there was a spot to start out paying consideration, it is right here, catching him en path to a extra hospitable place.
The album scans because the collected knowledge of 4 many years price of journeys, two of these spent scrawling penetrating raps. His rhymes on Maps bear the frankness of a weary pilgrim. “I am previous, I am going within the sales space like cocoon / Rappers’ protégé’s get too huge, drift out of orbit, rogue moons / I be the one one laughing within the room, n****s unamused / I crack a smile at what you say is the reality,” he raps on “Hangman.” His raps have the fidgetiness that comes with lengthy journeys — at one level, he mentions a 10-hour layover in Chicago; a number of songs later, he pops up in Bratislava and Utrecht — however these verses are simply as a lot in regards to the in-between moments the place he is settled or settling. With woods, the textual content is at all times dense and tremendous referential, riffing on excessive lit, popular culture and political science, as befitting the son of professors and a refugee.
However his work, even at its most cryptic, will not be impenetrable, particularly when he imparts what he’s seeing. woods deploys a cosmopolitan, wily lyricism that’s each erudite and streetwise. Few rappers have extra to say. His verses overflow into the margins, setting scenes in asides. There may be an underlying acuity that has marked almost every thing he is finished since 2018. However it is a full-on grasp class, even for certainly one of rap’s greatest-ever penmen. In every verse on “The Layover,” he threads a single rhyme scheme with every line constructing upon the final. “Black dying, rubbernecking pale faces / Handkerchief soaked in fragrance / Posthumous YouTube views / Lion on the backside of a nicely trying up at a circle of blue,” he raps. The wordplay there may be as intense as it’s amusing. There may be, in fact, the analogue at its middle, drawing a parallel from the voyeurism surrounding police brutality to snooty bystanders throughout the Black Plague — the strain in such juxtapositions of contemporary and medieval, the entendre inside (Black Loss of life), the imagery at play and the irony of historical past repeating itself. In a verse that seemingly ends alluding to a Sanskrit fable, it’s the good stability of knowable and arcane; simply certainly one of many who opens earlier than the listener.
The songs on Maps, all of that are collaborations with the LA-based producer Kenny Segal, really feel plainspoken with out sacrificing the craftiness or the thriller on the core of the woods sound. That is not to say that is any nearer to pop’s middle — he has no real interest in that kind of factor — however that is about as clear as a rapper who hides his face can get. There may be clearly a distinction between private and sociable, and his storytelling will not be merely for sharing, it is for enlightening. For all of woods’ epic pedagogy, the zingers are almost limitless. “Each time issues going good or having amusing / Have to recollect God’s a hater.” Put that on a T-shirt. “It might be nuclear winter with an earthquake / The worst individuals’ll wiggle out the rubble” belongs on a throw pillow. He can come off like a cynic, and possibly he’s, however the humor cuts by the strain, and his knowingness has a shrugging sense of calm and sturdiness.
A few of that calm is induced by woods’ dependable journey companion: marijuana. He is on the Courtyard by Marriott toilet, blowing it by the vents, or rolling a backwood in Amsterdam killing time. Most rappers will inform you that weed is essential to any voyage, however woods goes additional, treating it as a gateway to an area someplace past the unfamiliar, or a self-sustaining consolation zone in any metropolis. He raps about it like somewhat embassy of his personal making. “Rapper Weed” feels just like the chronicle of the dispensary ecosystem and the characters that navigate it. There may be such readability of thought and function it’s as if his senses have been dialed as much as eleven. On “Houdini,” weed is the cushion on his time without work, ushering him by a sensory expertise that conjures perceptive imagery (“The nostril is Pine-Sol and turpentine / However the style remind me of Jamaican oranges that appear to be limes”) and folkloric visions (“Walked into the forest full of concern / Could not see it coming, however I may hear /One thing lumbering close to”). It invitations strangeness and respite, fosters curiosity and urge for food.
There is a nod to the late touring chef, creator and documentarian Anthony Bourdain that feels significantly apt (“Components Unknown, at dwelling when the street’s not paved … No Reservations, walked in like Bourdain”). Bourdain knew greater than a factor or two in regards to the street, and likewise about, as woods put it, “dwelling the dream and dreaming of one other life.” In his guide, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones, Bourdain wrote, “Journey adjustments you. As you progress by this life and this world you modify issues barely, you permit marks behind, nonetheless small. And in return, life — and journey — leaves marks on you.” Although he is not the optimist Bourdain was, woods too is aware of the marks accumulate and that, collectively, they start to inform a narrative. And he understands the ability of an incredible chew. Meals performs a key position within the ways in which the rapper experiences and remembers the character of a spot. It options closely, intimately. Style and scent are key components of reminiscence, and he makes use of scrumptious meals as a way to notice the marks made, as Bourdain did. In their very own manner, these songs have the texture of nice hole-in-the-wall spots — off the overwhelmed path however life-affirming, a refuge from gentrifiers.
woods and Segal’s earlier full-length collaboration, the 2019 album Hiding Locations, extolled the virtues of canopy, stuffed with craggy Segal beats that allowed woods’ off-kilter flows to slink out and in of the crevices. The manufacturing was disorienting and barely eerie, evoking the creaky, deserted home within the album artwork — dank halls and rusted plumbing. It wasn’t the horrors of James Wan; it was the horrors of The Final Black Man in San Francisco — much less spectral, extra infrastructural, hinting at not some ghostly presence however the squatters inside. The beats on woods’ 2022 album Aethiopes, made by Preservation, have been equally unsettling, generally rickety of their building or scanning extra as darkish ambient music. Whereas most of the songs on Maps carry the dystopian buzz of Chilly Vein period El-P beats, there may be additionally extra coloration and pulse to this document than the rapper’s different current releases. A number of songs are jazzy. The one, “FaceTime,” is not far off from one thing for Griselda. Most billy woods albums haven’t got singles, they only drop, which suggests not less than some want to achieve extra individuals this time. If it is not a flip towards accessibility then it’s, on the very least, a transfer away from turbulence.
The album winds right down to a brief, harrowing, stunning remaining verse from woods to shut “Because the Crow Flies.” After a extra meditative opening verse from his Armand Hammer accomplice Elucid, woods takes a minute to dwelling in on a single instantaneous on the playground along with his son. As he is pushing the kid on the swing, he has a string of epiphanies — something may occur to the boy at any time; it is a miracle that he’s demonstrating higher consciousness day-after-day; and woods is not assured a second to see him develop up. At eight traces, delivered in 20 seconds, the verse itself appears to reflect the ‘blink and you will miss it’ nature of parenting, however every thing about it’s so in its proper place that there is no doubt that is extra about embracing pleasure, not resignation — in regards to the energy in even probably the most ephemeral moments. It’s his easiest verse but in addition his gentlest and most transferring. In it, the roads not taken pale compared to discovering a house.