Wednesday, April 17, 2019

album review: 'hiding places' by billy woods

So I'm going to do something a little different with this billy woods review in comparison with previous albums I've covered from either him or his group Armand Hammer, where for the most part I've given some high scores... and then a few months later by the end of the year I find that I just haven't revisited the albums in the same way.

And let me make this clear, this can happen with more hip-hop than I'd rather admit - it's lyrical, it's dense, it's fascinating stuff to talk about and review... and yet outside of rare cases, a lot of the songs don't wind up on my year-end lists or regular rotation in the same way outside of very specific moods. Now that's not to disparage its quality - as I implied, there'll be times that the only thing I'll want to hear is hyper-dense lyrical hip-hop and I'll have a ton of albums to pull into rotation, but billy woods said something in the lead-up to this project that caught my attention and surprised me: namely that sometimes, it's not that deep, and those who can't grasp it might not have the same life experiences. And that got me thinking, because there probably is an audience who can put on a billy woods album at any time and maybe I'm just not that, but it did make me consider that I might not want to overthink the newest project from billy woods, where he teamed up with producer Kenny Segal for twelve tracks where yes, I'm late to the punch again. And while woods is saying he's at his most direct here... well, I wasn't sure how much I bought that, but I didn't want to overthink the analysis with this one, so what did I find on Hiding Places?

So I'll admit I've been sitting on this one a little while - longer than I normally would a billy woods or Armand Hammer album, I'll admit, because in taking to heart my desire to not overthink this one, Hiding Places probably became the first billy woods project that I grasped fairly quickly. But I'd hesitate to call it 'accessible' - direct or straightforward are better adjectives, because this is an project that is unflinching in the pictures it paints, with the sort of fully realized human detail that is so starkly presented, I can see most casual hip-hop fans finding this an uncomfortable listen, or if they are empathetic it could be perceived as patronizing. For me, though... honestly, I'm not sure if it's woods' message to not overthink this or just my growing familiarity with his style and tendencies, but this might be a billy woods album I can revisit, and one that feels close to the level of ROME to really getting under my skin - and wound up pretty damn great as a result.

And it's important to start with what billy woods shows on this project - I was tempted to say vulnerability but I'm not sure he'd frame it like that - because where I've struggled with billy woods as an MC is his penchant to wander, not so much impressionistic in his writing to paint a picture but his paranoia and distance distorting the picture ever so slightly to send you spiraling in weird directions. He could be hard to follow, and in a sense there was a thrill to decoding his bars and steadily unpacking every nugget of wit, with the acknowledgement you were never going to get everything right - but Hiding Places is different. The dense layer of detail is still there, especially in images surrounding his childhood or crimes that happen but just out of his frame, and the blunt, apocalyptic paranoia and contempt for broken systems is all the more evident, but if Paraffin was the first glimpse at the humanity that informed those views, Hiding Places paradoxically places so much more of it in plain sight. And while there are points that show how billy woods might be at his most comfortable in the spider holes and crawlspaces, overstuffed with forgotten papers and hyper-detailed memories and anything that could be useful someday but is generally useless now, this is the album that shows glimpses of why and how he might have become like that...

And this is the gut-punch you don't see coming... because the roots can feel so ordinary. And that matters because on earlier projects it can be very easy to place billy woods' brand of esoteric, uncomfortable weirdness out of frame, especially in his more apocalyptic moments - deep down you know he's probably right about how and why society's systems might cave in and that guys like him who know how to survive will probably last the longest, and while Paraffin forced the look at human consequences, there was a manufactured distance through the lyrical style. With Hiding Places that distance is removed given how plainspoken - relatively speaking - he is, and you come to the realization billy woods isn't that far removed from everyone, and that makes his experiences and anxieties hit closer to home, especially surrounding poverty, both growing up and now. It's always been a factor shading his stories, but the experiences here are more sharply defined and personal, and they'd be funny if they weren't gutwrenching in their truth both from his excavated past and now. The encounter with someone doing way worse than you on 'steak knives' where to them even the thought of getting something for second place could mean the world; the monologue at the end of 'speak gently' surrounding how if you're poor, you don't get your mail forwarded, leaving all the more artifacts of of capitalism's flailing grip behind; the devastating decline of insurance on 'bigfakelaugh' where the John Q approach isn't an option, especially if they're trying to rebuild something from the bottom... 

And then there's 'a day in a week in a year'. It might just be the most heartbreaking song that billy woods has ever made, where the illusions of conquering the broken system are ripped away - as are any illusions that he'll find his way out of it, and the questions are left unanswered - the desperate crack fiends hit their pipes with tears streaming down their faces, he lets his car spin out on black ice to show how little control there is, and at the end of the day he feels like the kid without any money in the arcade, with his hands on the joystick and buttons pretending he's playing. And what's telling is that sense of subtle empathy is still poignant across this album - at the end of the day he has to eat, wants to be left alone, and hold his family dear, a hard reality when you're that poor and your necessary defenses can lead to bloody consequences along the way. But he doesn't really disparage those who want the same as he does and might look at that system as the answer - to them, and for at least now for him, it might be, and it means while this album can get unsettling, it doesn't precisely feel crushing or altogether bleak. He knows people want into the Matrix on 'crawlspace' despite everything it is - and he even calls himself on his disgust at the corruption he'll see, knowing his culpability - but there's almost something childlike and potent in his honesty and emotional responses in seeing the bigger picture and how flimsy those systems can be for those who really need them. The bombs dropping July 3rd on 'spongebob' though God promised never again for this annihilation; the reckoning promised and a possible different life on 'bedtime'; and when considered how much hip-hop embodies a similar structure and shield, we get 'checkpoints', 'toothy', the sad necessity of the violence on 'red dust' which isn't so much different that what was there decades ago, and the striking hook on 'spider hole', where he doesn't want to see the gentrification of words and real poverty that are a product of capitalism, not its cheap branding... even as he himself acknowledges he'll have to play the game to survive in the end, at least for now. It's territory he was in on Paraffin, but the framing places things closer to him now, and that's all the more revelatory.

Now that's still a lot going on, not even touching on the reams of intricate detail and detritus that surrounds the album which you'd think would render it like most billy woods or Armand Hammer projects a little claustrophobic... and the strange thing is that it's not. I've been familiar with Kenny Segal for some time - his work with Open Mike Eagle and milo and the Jefferson Park Boys put him in my regular rotation - but his production for billy woods is more crackling and spare, giving billy woods' gruffer tone plenty of room to echo and muse across the mix off slightly cleaner textures. And when I say that, I mostly mean that for once billy woods' vocals come through as clear as ever and aren't actively fighting for air in a dense mix which can make certain words hard to make out, which I definitely consider a plus... although there are a few songs where the clash between smoother synth tones and mixes that crackle with more organic texture can get a bit jarring, like how the synth balances against the muffled guitar on 'checkpoints'. And for a project that tends to feel ponderous and heavy, even on shorter cuts you get the time to take that in, like on the first half of 'crawlspace' against ELUCID's verse before the song collapses into something a lot more hollow and dark, or how the oddly upbeat guitar pickup is a weird clash with the creepy density on 'toothy'. Hell, if we want to talk about density the first third of 'speak gently' almost feels like an Uncommon Nasa production with the careening guitars crashing against the heavier percussion before the song decomposes through Self-Jupiter's verse and billy woods' musing outro. All of that being said, I do appreciate how effectively many of these productions shift and warp - the transitions from the melancholic crackles of the verses to MOTHERMARY's husky hook against the damp wiriness of the synth 'a day in a week in a year' is testament to that - and while I wouldn't say billy woods precisely has 'hooks' on this album, there are choruses that stand out more than I expected. The bark of 'spongebob' before the muffled guitars crash through, a similar approach taken with piano embellishments on 'spider hole', the squonking knock of 'bigfakelaugh' that almost seems to take a jazzy approach in the arrangement that also pops up on 'bedtime' and the second third of 'speak gently', but by the time we get the shaken cymbals and off-key emptiness of 'red dust', you're left with a project that doesn't quite collapse in upon itself, but the strain of it all holding up is apparent, and there's a empty space within where the tones might be muffled.. but they and those who create them are still there, and they still echo.

So as a whole... yeah, I might have overthought this one too, but billy woods delivered one of his most straightforward, haunting, and emotionally gripping projects to date - just as lyrical and thought-provoking, but revealing of enough of his experiences and life and emotionality to draw me in more than ever. More than before it feels like his stories are framed in a way to challenge the audience on multiple fronts, and it feels like more chances were taken to get there - and I think they worked. More than most, I can see this being a billy woods album that sticks with me a little longer, which is why I'm giving this an 8/10 and a serious recommendation, especially for those who might have been on the fence about him before. It's a tough album to digest, for sure... but he's shown the spaces where he is, and they aren't too far removed - with every reason to hide, more than ever he's in full view.

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