Yes, I know that every new billy woods album is his best work, really. But, BUT his new collaborative masterpiece with producer extraordinaire Kenny Segal Maps may be his most refined and impressive to date. I am honestly blown away. 2019’s Hiding Places set the standard for their incredible musical relationship, and they really exceeded all expectations, as far as I’m concerned. For starters, Kenny Segal, take a fucking bow. The production on this album is colourful and varied, both in the complex, meandering live instrumentation, as well as the incredible melodies that add both an eerie yet serene tone in equal measure, it feels. billy woods’ animated and visual rhymes give me things to ponder about, with so many relatable experiences and lines that just stick with me now. It’s a dense listen, but a whole lotta fun and interesting to sit down with, study and just enjoy for the incredible writing. In any case, I’ll try to cover some of the main themes, this ain’t gonna be that much of a deep dive, it’d probably take me a month or so to feel like I’ve properly digested it.
For some context, Hiding Places was an album about hiding in the darkness, from the trials and tribulations of everyday life as a Black man in the States. Politics and societal issues contextualize the world he paints throughout his music. We are all lost, as human beings, hiding from our problems, driven a lot of the time by pressures of capitalism and societal injustice. Hiding Places amplified this feeling of anxiety tenfold, helped by Kenny Segal’s visceral and heavy production, a lot of which is still some of his most refined to date. The parallels between the darkness in both sonics and poems within Hiding Places and their phenomenal second full-length collaboration Maps is ever-present, but this time billy woods is outside more, willing to confront the discomforts of his own life and those that plague the world today. The album cover (something I’m still warming up to), is a direct reference to easyjet’s safety instruction manual. Contained and claustrophobic, to me it conveys the rules and limitations of traveling and the feeling of being ‘free’ in the world when away from home.
Sonically the album sounds much more varied and colourful in comparison to their first collaborative album, though within these textured and layered instrumentals sit woods’ typically dark and reflective poems about the world as he sees it. Tracks like “Year Zero”, featuring a phenomenally long and meandering guest verse from Danny Brown, is exemplary of this. The dark, eerie synths and crashing beat gives the track a skeletal feel, and billy woods spits a plethora of lines that are so raw and striking, with
“My taxes pay police brutality settlements”from “Year Zero” ft Danny Brown
being one line, and the unnerving chorus that sees him talk to the youth directly about the tragedies of the world and what we’ve done to it. Despite it’s slightly lighter instrumental, with mellow guitar leads and overall sound, “Soft Landing” is a pretty harrowing listen.
“A single death is a tragedy but eggs make omelets / Statistics how he look at war casualties / Killin’ is one thing, what sticks is how casually”from “Soft Landing”
is so fucking bleak, and shows how little political leaders care about the value of human life. The album actually kicks off with “Kenwood Speakers”, a thumping, heavy track capturing the energy and urgency of this album and the message it conveys. Lines like
“If it’s gon’ get gentrified, I’m not trying to leave it empty-handed”from “Kenwood Speakers”
are funny, but speak to a deeper message of trying to get the most out of things that get pimped by money – the effect of capitalism. “Soundcheck” featuring Quelle Chris is another interesting track about the anxieties and dislikes of performing and being in soundcheck, with a refrain that references Armand Hammer’s incredible “Rehearse with Ornette”:
Every victory pyrrhic, every live show forget the lyricfrom “Soundcheck” featuring Quelle Chris
Is the effort put into touring and travelling even worth it for the toll it takes on his physical and mental health? As someone who seems inherently introverted and to himself as woods seems to be, doesn’t seem like it at all. “Rappers Weed” is a track about dope, with some one of the most intricate refrains you’ll hear this year. “Blue Smoke” has this free jazz instrumental, with another dizzying spoken-word piece from woods. “Bad Dreams Are Only Dreams” is a minute-long track where woods paints the effects of jet lag in a drowsy, sleepy short but punchy verse. “Babylon By Bus” featuring ShrapKnel follows, another incredible track, with a dynamic and dark beat. billy woods opens up with:
“Babylon by bus, no tagalongs /Just a marathon, trying to run it up”from “Babylon by Bus’ ft ShrapKnel
the start of another visceral and dystopian verse that sets the tone for the rest of the track. Both Curly Castro and PremRock’s verses are exceptional, with sports references combining with apocalyptic imagery that capture the fire and energy of the beat. Then, an orchestral sample is introduced, giving billy woods an opportunity to say some cold truths:
“People don’t want the truth, they want me to tell ’em grandma went to heaven”.from “Babylon by Bus” featuring ShrapKnel
The fabricated, faux world we’re living in denies us of the opportunity to think and converse with clarity, in a funny line challenging the notion of heaven as a place where all humans go after they die, in the context of a grieving family. It’s crazy how much imagery most of his lines have. “Hangman”, including one of my favourite beats, a dark, bass-heavy growl, with percussion and brass instrumentation that adds such richness, also includes that first verse, one of my favourites on the album. Short, succinct, vivid and captivating. “Baby Steps” featuring E L U C I D and Benjamin Booker is incredible too, with Shabaka Hutchings’ flute painting this animated beat with softness. The way billy woods opens his verse up is incredible, while E L U C I D’s verse adding vibrancy and colour to billy woods’ painting. “The Layover”, another incredible track, with a piano sample that just does it for me. Again, opening lines taking the spotlight:
“Already knew the options was lose/lose / Baby, that’s nothing new / That just make it easier to choose, it’s up to you.”from “The Layover”
A vivid image of our choices are literally a flip of a coin. We are fucked, but with that, we have to survive. “FaceTime” featuring Samuel T. Herring, the lead single, is grand, as expected, with Sam’s voice complementing billy woods’ sombre words about failed and missed FaceTime calls and the general anxiety of touring, outside of the actual show. In terms of pure poetry, “Agriculture” might be the one. The incredible visualisations of nature and the world around us is just so perfect. lines like
“The night fight before it die”from “Agriculture”
“But my hands been dirty since before I could grasp time”from “Agriculture”
give such poetic imagery for completely different reasons. I just personally love the idea that the night wants doesn’t want to give into the day and resists and fights with every opportunity, but can’t because that’s nature and that’s the way things are. A fitting metaphor to life under capitalism and fascism (thinking about the UK in particular here). The latter line slowly introduces the theme of survivors remorse, through a visual and metaphoric representation of the hardships of his early childhood and the impact that had on his health. “Houdini” has a groovy beat, with a fitting refrain with this incredible double entendre:
“I was high all day, I escaped”from “Houdini”
repeated thrice, until woods just says
“I was high all day”from “Houdini”
Everything has an end in this world. There’s no escaping that, despite all the ways, whether travelling, touring or getting blazed, that may help with it. Confronting these issues is another “Waiting Around” featuring Aesop Rock is fantastic, too. The beat is very, hip-hop, with the sample chops and the scratching. Aesop’s dizzying verse is incredible, as he talks about his feelings on touring and travelling in the context of his own artistry. billy woods’ incredible verse follows, as he talks about time In Bruges in between flights. A really visual and interesting verse that captures so much of that ennui you feel when you’re travelling and have some time to kill.
“NYC Tapwater” is probably my favourite woods song ever, to be honest. From Kenny Segal’s dizzying jazzy masterpiece, with gorgeous keys that elevate this track to the clouds. A gentle, nostalgic trip to the meaning of home, the comfort and peace that comes from finally being back home. Lines like
“Since I’ve been gone, it’s a new panhandler outside the store / Inside, young boy goin’ through every bag of grabba like it’s raw silk cloth”from “NYC Tapwater”
“Survivor’s guilt with a side of buyers remorse, I’m home, but my mind be wandering off”from “NYC Tapwater”
with the start of the second verse,
“Sometimes I don’t tell anyone I’m back around / Just lay low, crack a fresh pound / The cat miss me the most, purring loud on my lap / Tranquilo, fragrant smoke lazy in the air / Fingers steepled, wondering if I really need all this stuff I got here”,from “NYC Tapwater”
and those keys that elevate the instrumental to new heights, is absolutely flawless and perfect. I sometimes miss London tap water when I’ve been travelling around. It’s gross, I know, but it does genuinely give me a sense of comfort, hence why this song is so relatable to me. “As the Crow Flies” featuring E L U C I D, on the other hand, is a really close second. The beat is gorgeous, atmospheric and full of keys and synths, a subtle choir, with E L U C I D kicking it off with a fitting farewell verse, closing it out speaking as he’s on a plane going home to family:
“Under influence, 10k and rising / In the valley of the sun, I’m a force without a name / I been tripping through coordinates, just have my cordless hot / A whisky sour, ice, what it is, what it’s not / By the time I get to Arizona / I didn’t come with instruction”from “As the Crow Flies” featuring E L U C I D
I could have copied the whole verse, it is truly hypnotic the way E L U C I D is able to meander between words and phrases so effortlessly, while feeling a rich sense of gratitude that transpires throughout the verse. Oddly reassuring, despite the cynicism throughout the album. billy woods delivers one of his most straight-forward but potent and poetic verses he’s ever written.
I’m in the park with the baby on the swing / When it hits me crazy, anything at all could happen to him / He been climbing higher and higher on the jungle gym / Running faster, sometimes pushing other kids / Tear-streaked apologies, balled fists, it’s a trip / That this is something we did / I kiss her on the lips / I watch him grow, wondering how long I got to livefrom “As the Crow Flies” featuring E L U C I D
A cynical conclusion to what is an outstanding album. A lot of the time, we operate on autopilot. It’s happened to me, trust me, it’s real and tough. And it’s crazy to think how fast time flies. With all the shit happening in the world, music, writing, poetry etc is the thing that holds communities together for me, and the community billy woods has brought over the years with Backwoodz Studioz is nothing short of inspiring. Maps captured this effortlessly into these absolute gems of songs, with incredible sequencing and structure. I can’t fault it, honestly. There’s not one subpar song, my favourites rotate with every listen. It’s a truly striking and memorable body of work that sits at the top of the list of billy woods and Kenny Segal albums, in my opinion. After all, every new billy woods release is his best album, so this is the one until the next one!
Listen to billy woods & Kenny Segal’s Maps below, released via Backwoodz Studioz, and don’t forget to support!
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