It’s been a week since billy woods surprised us with Church, his second full-length album of 2022, and I’m still not sure how to feel about it exactly. With each and every billy woods release, you really need full, uninterrupted attention. His rhymes read like historical theses, intricately painting pictures of his own observations and experiences, usually told over desolate, dark and skeletal production. Aethiopes exemplified this too well. Preservation’s raw, percussion-heavy production was perfect for billy woods’ raw, encyclopedic poetry, flowing between surreal David Lynch-esque imagery and historical commentary that makes for a stunning yet complex listen. Every billy woods release takes time for me to digest and actually enjoy, so it’s no surprise that I’m yet to fully fall in love with his latest project Church.
Produced entirely by longtime Armand Hammer collaborator Messiah Musik, the album is 12 tracks and 37 minutes in length, exploring themes of urban decay, love and his relationship with women – a somewhat central theme to the album, and marijuana – there really are a lot of weed references here. woods sounds oddly reassuring, finally finding a sense of peace despite the madness around him. Or rather, he’s able to distance himself emotionally from the horrors of the outside world, which may be influenced by weed as a means to escape the corridors of reality around him. Messiah Musik’s production is disorienting, varied and difficult to get into at times, which really is a testament to his talents, because any producer that can challenge me is worthy of so much respect. The beat switch on the opener “Paraquat” is incredible, while the subtle flute sample on “Artichoke” is fantastic, and complements billy woods’ uncomfortable lyrics, with lines like “Young boy asked if it’s pressure, I bent the knee as a gesture”, which is a crazy reference to both police brutality and performative allyship. The shortest track on the album, “Swampwater”, probably has one of the most poignant lines on the album. “Life is short, who am I to judge you how to terror manage”. The reference to his 2019 album Terror Management is also an allusion to how human beings find different ways to deal with and face their fears of death, with an accepting woods not passing any judgement on people trying to escape the perils of capitalism. Suffering for a hell of a lot of people, is a given, and billy woods, while he doesn’t necessarily sound defeated in his delivery, definitely accepts the brutal reality of suffering. It’s this acceptance that seems to permeate throughout the album, which thematically differs a lot from Aethiopes, which felt more urgent and helpless in its delivery. Throughout the album, we see woods talk candidly about the effects of war on veterans and those deeply affected by the destruction of it. The lead single “Pollo Rico” is a standout, with a smooth and light beat, with woods bluntly stating “The thing was broke from the jump / no point going back and forth over who did what / My character arc: Rolling Loud to Shakespeare in the park”. The duality in the perception of himself and his story is influenced by the broken system around him. The features throughout the album kill it too. ELUCID makes a usually memorable appearance on “Fuchsia & Green” and the dynamic album closer “Magdalene”, AKAI SOLO’s verse on “Classical Music” is exceptional, while Fielded closes that track with her usually haunting vocals. Fat Ray has the standout feature on “Schism”, as he raps over a sample from “No Hard Feelings” off Aethiopes while flowing effortlessly, bringing his usually animated imagery. There’s so much yet to analyse and talk about. “Fever Grass” has grown on me to the point of it being one of my favourites on the album, the beat on “Cossack Wedding” is haunting and utterly breathtaking, and “All Jokes Aside” has this cynical tone – a fascinating track I’m still trying to digest.
Church is quite a fascinating listen. The disorienting, moody production is still something to absorb and truly appreciate. It’s a definite grower, and I will take the time to digest the meaning behind the album and its title, which, while I didn’t really touch on so far, to me is partially representative of the things or people (perhaps the women that woods mentions throughout the album), that we hold dear to us, love and worship amidst the chaos, as well as the sacrifices that we try to make to ensure that we find peace within ourselves. On the one hand, we as individuals chose what our ‘church’ is, even if for a lot of the times it means dipping into our vices or self-destructing habits. On the other hand, church can be representative of a completely broken institution, representing the oppressive systems that have caused so much suffering for people (including the Catholic church). The album cover to me (shoutout to the incredible Alexander Richter), is a metaphor for the view of those at the considered at the bottom of society (the poorest and most oppressed, looking up at this high rise building (representative of the oppressive systems I mentioned earlier) in hopelessness and with a defeated acceptance that nothing will change. Love to Messiah Musik (I still need to sit with the production more!) and billy woods of course, who has yet to release a sub-par album. As long as he’s still writing, I’m happy.
Released via Backwoodz Studioz.