Saturday, August 19, 2017

album review: 'known unknowns' by billy woods

Well, it's about damn time I got to this, an artist I referenced in my last hip-hop review and who some have told me has dropped one of the stronger projects this year... and I have to say, it's taken me a while to really get to billy woods.

So, here's some context: he's a New York MC, he founded his own label Backwoodz Studioz, he's been putting out albums since the early-to-mid 2000s, but really started to hit a potent creative stride in the early 2010s, both on his own and as a member of the duo Armand Hammer with frequent collaborator Elucid - who I'll also probably end up covering at some point this year, given his critical acclaim. And that's important to note: if we're looking at New York hip-hop artists who are pushing and challenging the sound in the vein of what Def Jux did fifteen years ago, I'd definitely put Billy Woods on that list in a similar way I would Uncommon Nasa - the bars a little more direct here but no less thought-provoking, and often times over even more challenging production on records like History Will Absolve Me.

And yet, if I'm being brutally honest, I've struggled to completely embrace a billy woods project as a whole. Some of his songs can tilt around rap cliches, but a larger issue I found on his 2015 project Today, I Wrote Nothing was a certain scattershot nature of a lot of tracks, potent in snippets but nearly always leading to projects that felt too long and not quite coalescing as a whole, at least for me. Which was frustrating because between his blunt and curt style of delivery and some challenging and experimental production, this is the sort of rapper I'd love to wholeheartedly get behind, and with the continued stream of critical acclaim for his newest record Known Unknowns, I was hoping this could be the one to do it for me. So, what I did find?

So here's the thing: I like this record a fair bit. It's got a couple great guest verses, Blockhead's production while not being as challenging as what billy woods has used in the past is still pretty damn solid, it's probably his most accessible record to date with some of his most defined hooks while still feeling thought-provoking and thematically cohesive... and yet once again, I find myself wishing I could love this more. Make no mistake, it is potent and interesting and I completely see the appeal of a record like Known Unknowns - I just wish that I had a stronger emotional connection to its arc and direction, and considering how this has felt like an issue for multiple billy woods records now, I really want to get to the bottom of why that is, especially as I don't quite have this issue with other acts in his orbit and scene.

And I don't think this issue lies in the production, for one. I'll be the first to admit that for as abstract of an MC as billy woods can be, giving him a slice of grimy, sample-heavy but otherwise melodically accessible New York production can feel a tad out of place, but again, there is a focus on hooks and structure here more than other projects, and it does help pull things together. And while I don't quite find billy woods an incredibly expressive or diverse MC when it comes to flows - he's got a set multisyllabic rhyming mold that fits across a number of tempos but outside of hooks can definitely start to blur together - this sort of production can flatter him. I like the horns against the faster percussion from Aesop Rock on 'Bush League', which will come back against Barrie McLain's excellent hook on with the deeper thrumming groove of 'Strawman'. And hell, there are some really solid grooves here - Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman ride the bounce of 'Wonderful' remarkably well, the sparse rattling anchoring 'Unstuck' leads to another solid hook, the noisy blasts of harmonica lead to the unstable roughness of 'Superpredator' that unfortunately don't pay the same dividends on 'Keloid' that goes even more lo-fi, and I really dig some of the darker rumbles of bass texture that leaks through on 'Everybody Knows' and 'Source Awards', although two songs earlier it plays off the synth really well. I will say that there are vocal samples and synths that don't quite click for me, most notably on the closing track 'Robespierre', and I do wish I liked Elucid's contributions to 'Nomento' and 'Tupac Jackets' clicked more for me... but then again, I could say much of the same for much of billy woods as well.

And here's where things get complicated, because from the interviews I read and the songs I was able to decode from this record - and it wasn't all of them - I think I understand what billy woods was looking to explore, most of which is focused on the idea of confronting the titular 'known unknowns' in a world where things are both constantly evolving but the constant intimate situation never seems to change. And while there is of course a strong fatalistic streak that runs through songs like 'Keloid', billy woods seems to be more interested in exploring why things don't change, or the root causes behind the things he's unsure of to explain his own decisions. 'Police Came To My Show' is probably one of the most straightforward examples: a few people he's almost positive are officers show up to one of his concerts, his expected crowd clears out, and he's left with very little if any profit out of it, and it's making the point that simply through their presence it drove away an audience who might or might not have engaged in illegal action, but are now perpetuating the cycle of poverty that could lead to more of this, especially if it becomes reflected in his art. Hell, 'Superpredator' is a more lengthy exploration of violent imagery in hip-hop, with the art reflective of and then potentially perpetuating a grim, paranoid reality... and yet even he is conscious of the fact that he only realizes and speaks against it when confronted with mortality on songs like 'Unstuck' - the cats start to really gamble on their lives when they're on their ninth. And you can tell that for billy woods when he sees how those systems of white supremacy are then perpetuated in his own mind through the opening verse of 'Bush League', it's all the harder to break free of them, especially when he's forced to project a reinforced image of toughness to survive. It becomes a pileup of mirrors where people only see what they want to see to reinforce expectations surrounding what those 'known unknowns' are... but the truth is that billy woods knows he still has a soul and agency to challenge them, and even if he continues to get no answers, isn't it preferable to living in a world of veneers where he constantly is forced to challenge his own self-perception of reality? He'd rather be a rational actor who is not pretending, even if it sets him against a Sisyphean system that'd seek to act on the same known unknowns to render judgement.

Now here's the thing: I was able to untangle this through a lot of listens and checking through interviews and whatever I could trace through the knotted web of references and lack of a clean narrative - and even with that I'll admit across the mid-section of the album I started losing the plot, and even despite solid production and potent delivery, when the hooks were replaced by disconnected samples and scratching, I could easily see a lot of listens throwing up their hands and giving up - and on songs like 'Tupac Jackets' and 'Source Awards' and 'Gazpacho' I very nearly did. Knowing the words and references used did give me a rough idea of the intended mood, but unless I could trace to a central unifying statement on a hook like Uncommon Nasa does or some sense of narrative like on Quelle Chris' last project, or even a sense that the puzzle box had some simpler but emotionally compelling idea at its core like some of Aesop Rock's thornier tracks, it was impressive wordplay but you lose the emotional throughline. And what's exasperating is that when placed opposite songs where the meaning is abstracted but can be traced, these songs come across as diversions, or assertions of closely held paranoia that can feel a bit repetitive four or five songs in, especially when they are more cleanly expressed. Granted, billy woods has stated this record is a little less self-contained and was trying for more established song structures in comparison with Today I Wrote Nothing - and this does connect more than that album did on the latter basis - but when the central idea is as well-sketched and intriguing as it is, the outlier songs fall even more in this lane, although I will give points for billy woods wrenching the themes to the forefront on the final two tracks for a solid ending.

But a whole... again, I wish I had a stronger emotional connection to this project than I do. He's a solid as hell rapper, the production is varied and hard-hitting, there's a lot of cool wordplay and potent hooks and a meaty idea at the core... but again, maybe a tad too scattershot, knotted in itself, and longer than it needed to be as a whole. For me, it's going to be an extremely strong 7/10 and a recommendation - I know a lot of hip-hop heads who'll love this, especially if you're in that fanbase who loves seeing a sonic equivalent to Def Jux's second coming - I just wish I could connect with it more. Still, though, worth the many, many listens - that, I do know for certain.

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