billy woods’ New Album ‘Aethiopes’ Is A Disorienting Masterwork: Review

“Europeans decided what Blackness was.” That’s something that billy woods told The FADER in maybe the only interview that woods has done behind his new album Aethiopes. In the context of the interview, that’s less a thissis statement and more a tossed-off observation, but it’s still a useful way for looking into Aethiopes, one more stunning piece of rap music from a career full of them. Over the course of his career, billy woods has found hundreds of sidelong, oblique ways to look at a bloodthirsty, hostile reality. His music is full of apocalyptic imagery, late-capitalist inhumanity, and visceral reminders from centuries upon centuries of white colonialism. Aethiopesan album named after an archaic European term for Africans, digs deep into the many ways that history informs the way people live their lives in the here-and-now, and it’s rich and layered enough to leave your head spinning.

Both solo and as half of Armand Hammer, billy woods has been responsible for some of the best rap records I’ve heard in recent years. I don’t find it especially useful to pit the man’s works against one another, so I can’t say whether Aethiopes is the best billy woods album. I can, however, tell you that Aethiopes has gotten under my skin more than any other album I’ve heard, in any genre, in quite some time. Aethiopes is a dense text full of bursts of language that demand serious thought and analysis. You could transcribe all of woods’ lyrics on the album and sell them as a poetry book, and on paper, they’d cut deeper than most of the (admittedly very little) poetry that I’ve forced myself to read over the years. But this isn’t homework. This is a rap record, and it’s a great one.

billy woods made Aethiopes with Preservation, a producer whose voice and style are as distinctive as what woods does with words. Preservation has worked as Yasiin Bey’s tour DJ, and his last release was Eastern Medicine, Western Illness, a 2020 album where various underground-rap greats — Roc Marciano, Mach-Hommy, billy woods himself — went in over samples of obscure Chinese records that Preservation found while living in Hong Kong. Seven years ago, Preservation teamed up with Ka to record Days With Dr. Yen Loa concept album organized around The Manchurian Candidateboth the book and the movie. Aethiopes seems to have its own inspiration, and it’s Kongi’s Harvesta film that Ossie Davis directed in 1970, adapting the work of the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. Kongi’s Harvest tells the story of a dictator trying and failing to modernize an African nation. In the end, he dies. Between songs, samples from Kongi’s Harvest string the tracks from Aethiopes together.

Africa looms large on Aethiopes, but then, I guess Africa looms large in every piece of rap music ever made. It looms large in all of popular music, since virtually every genre that we enjoy today is a byproduct of the African diaspora. billy woods spent much of his childhood living in Zimbabwe. On “Asylum,” the first track from Aethiopes, woods wonders whether the neighbor living in the fortress next door is Mengistu Ha Mariam, the former Ethiopian dictator who still lives in Zimbabwe after his policies led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians. The song is tense and discordant, with no central pulse to its beat. Instead, over enervated clusters of piano, woods shares chopped-up shards of imagery: “Razor wire like a Slinky/ Rumor is parcel bomb took the secretary right eye and pinky.”

Aethiopes is full of cold, hard visions. On one song, white people pull up to the African coast for “cannibal tours”: “They came on all fours/ Waterborne, eyes like Jaws/ Bones litter the beach, gnawed.” On another, woods equates Black American criminal life with the dangerous boredom that settles in when sailors’ ships are adrift in the doldrums: “Horses thrown overboard kick fast, then slow.” When woods visits a museum, he finds himself on the wrong side of the glass: “Fire in the cane fields, generational trauma/ At the museum, eyes glassy from the pain pills, me and her in the diorama.”

Throughout the album, woods sees that same darkness in Black American life. Because of the constant threat of physical danger, families aren’t allowed to function as families: “Some couldn’t wait to kick they kids out/ Others had to do it ‘fore gangs shot up the house.” One kid, thrown from a dirtbike, dies twice on an operating table before coming back with a limp and a skull dent, and he counts himself lucky when police only give him house arrest. The people who promise deliverance and sell dreams are part of the problem: “The thick game with con artists and hucksters/ Flip a cardboard box, three-card monte social justice.” The people who think they understand class war are usually the beneficiaries of it, and they don’t know shit about the sheer boredom and drudgery of working-class life: “Spare me the Hallmark Karl Marx/ I was in the Dollar Tree breakroom playing cards with quarters.”

The music on Aethiopes is as unsettled as anything that billy woods says. Preservation doesn’t really make beats. Instead, he conjures moods. His tracks draw on abstract jazz and film scores. They’re haunted and off-center. Sometimes, there will be no drums. Sometimes, it’ll just be a cymbal tapping again and again, unsettling in its insistence. Instruments wander off the tracks — a stand-up bass, a zither, a lonely howling horn. I’m only just now getting started on Dan Charnas’ new J Dilla biography Dilla Time, but much of the book is dedicated to arguing that Dilla’s specific sense of rhythm was a radical new evolution of our shared musical vocabulary. I kept thinking about that listening to Aethiopes, since Preservation’s general disinterest in time-keeping works as its own departure. His tracks are uneasy stress-meditations, and he often leaves woods and the album’s other rappers to find their own pockets.

There are a lot of rappers on Aethiopes; on some level, it’s a family reunion of a certain corner of the underground. Most of the voices are raspy and world-weary: Boldy James, Quelle Chris, reggae veteran Shinehead. El-P shows up to rap a couple of sharply written verses alongside woods and former Juggaknots leader Breeze Brewin. I love Run The Jewels, but it still feels amazing to hear El back in his Company Flow zone. Still, every single guest-rapper on Aethiopes is in the difficult position of inhabiting this frayed sonic atmosphere that woods and Preservation have created. Few of them are anywhere near as comfortable as woods. Despot, the lifer who refuses to ever release an album, gets off some slick lines amidst the ghostly dub skank of “Versailles”: “Might pull out the hammer — hit your knees and check your reflexes.” Boldy James finds a moment of sad irony worthy of woods himself: “Dug down in my soul and did some soul-searching/ All I found was a police report for a missing person.” But this isn’t a party, and it isn’t a competition. It’s billy woods mining broken wisdom from a fucked society; everything else is just a bonus.

Honestly, it seems ridiculous to write critically about Aethiopes because I don’t consider myself to be anywhere near billy woods’ level as a writer. This is not false modesty. I crank out thousands of words a day, and I think I’m pretty fucking good, but woods can make your whole brain freeze up in ways that I can barely comprehend. Consider this line: “My accountant is a headful of bad memories and sad endings/ It’s all payment pending.” Or this one: “The play within the play was G Dep as MacBeth/ Ashanti gold on Queen Elizabeth’s neck/ Scarification across both breasts.” Or, Jesus Christ, this one: “The future isn’t flying cars, it’s Rachel Dolezal absolved/ It’s autonomous computers sending shooters back in time at the behest of defunct messageboards.” We’re lucky that billy woods is operating at that level right now and that his work is taking the form of rap music. Aethiopes is a lot to process, and it should be a lot to process. Nothing is simple, and nothing is easy, but getting lost in billy woods’ work is its own reward.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Sauce Walka – “Dangerous Daringer”
Sauce Walka is always great, but there’s something special about hearing him venture outside his comfort zone and spazz out on a lumbering East Coast beat like this one. It probably wouldn’t make much sense for Sauce to forge any kind of lasting partnership with Griselda’s in-house producer, so a track like this will probably always be a glorious anomaly. That’s fine. A glorious anomaly is always welcome.

2. Jae Skeese – “Triple Post Offense” (Feat. 7xvethegenius & Conway The Machine)
The rap blogger-turned-producer Big Ghost LTD made two great albums with Conway over the last two years, and there’s a lot to recommend about his new team-up with Jae Skeese, another Buffalo rapper. This track is funkyand that’s not an adjective that I get to use often enough.

3. NLE Choppa – “Sleazy Flow Freestyle”
I hope nothing bad comes out of the NLE Choppa/NBA YoungBoy beef, but right now, it’s got Choppa rapping like this.

4. Young Slo-Be – “Ouweee” (Feat. DaBoii)
Young Slo-Be’s icy-mutter style doesn’t always work for me, but if you put him on some gothed-out funeral organs, that voice really lands.

5. BIA – “London” (Feat. J. Cole)
BIA sounds like she’s never cared about anything in her whole life. J. Cole always sounds like he cares so much. Together, they’re a study in contrasts.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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