billy woods Known Unknowns

[Backwoodz Studioz; 2017]

Styles: johari window, thought experiment
Others: Bill Murray, ELUCID

Every billy woods piece I’ve written begins the same way, with an internal debate over whether it’s OK to start a sentence with a lower-case letter. On one shoulder, Devil Sam, who holds to the belief that life is made better by ripping the grav behind my parents’ shed before and after every activity, screams, “Do it, you fucking square!” On the other, Angel Samuel, who holds an esteemed post as the head archivist for a major public library, says, with one of those pseudo-English-affected Boston accents that Beacon Hill residents use, “Now, now, tisk, tisk, you know thatchwouldn’t be propuh.”

billy Billy Known Unknowns is the sixth solo album by billy woods and his second with Blockhead providing most, if not all, of the beats (Block did all of the beats on their first extended collaboration, Dour Candy, and his longtime collaborator Aesop Rock contributed two this time around). As products of NYC indie rap’s golden era, woods and Blockhead share a penchant for creating left-of-center hip-hop that’s yada-yada-yada…

Every other billy woods piece I’ve read includes a paragraph like the above. That’s because, although woods is a relatively active MC, he’s generally consigned to a very specific corner of the indie rap scene, which is both always visible and perpetually unrecognized. (Three-Six Mafia, for a long time, occupied a separate corner, and while woods is aware of their album Most Known Unknowns, he assured me via email that his latest is not related in any way.)

Thus, with few points of reference, critics default to artistic comparisons that are tough to argue against without a long-winded discussion — comparisons that might have some surface merit, but don’t say much in the way of nuance and definitely don’t hold up under intense scrutiny: “Armand Hammer (ELUCID and billy woods) is like Cannibal Ox and Blockhead is like RJD2, and that’s that because Def Jux, end of story,” or “billy woods carries the torch for [insert late 90s/early ’00s ‘underground’ rapper here, but probably DOOM], making Known Unknowns a shining light of a supposedly bygone era that, at least for some, never really ended,” or some such fuckery.

The son of a literary scholar, woods is not blind to such criticism, however absurd it may be. In our discussions following the release of ELUCID’s Save Yourself, I said the album reminded me a lot of Illmatic, meaning it might be one of the best documents of NYC hip-hop of all time, and he (as it turns out, correctly) anticipated Def Jux comparisons. Having been independently releasing albums (his and others) since 2003, woods is no stranger to this game. He knows that his work will inevitably be held up alongside “90s hip-hop” or “Def Jux,” with comparisons typically based more on critics’ associations than critical interpretation. Yet, with each release, he keeps challenging himself and those around him (rappers, producers, writers who come to shows and say very little but who know all the words and dance in other people’s personal space) to do better.

I remember hearing Trey Parker and Matt Stone saying that they created Terrance and Phillip in response to those critics who said South Park was a show about nothing but fart jokes, as if to counter, “No, this is a show about nothing but fart jokes!” I imagine billy woods would never say that he created Known Unknowns in response to critics’ 90s hip-hop comparisons, that he’d insist the press is the furthest thing from his mind when he writes. However, woods did tell me this when I told him I thought Known Unknowns was his most accessible album to date:

…my vision for this album, before I started, was to make an album like it was the 90s. Basically; record songs, and pick the best ones, with no real overall concept (although one emerged nonetheless). Part of that also was about doing something totally different from [Today, I Wrote Nothing], so every song has a chorus, and multiple verses, and a loose concept unlike TIWN which is necessarily a tightly-wound narrative, I have probably never made an album where every song had a chorus. TIWN was intentionally a write-it, record it type album, rap sudden fiction-slash-extended-eulogy. This had a lot of rewriting and careful planning. So yeah, combine that with Blockhead’s melodic production, and “accessible” makes sense.

Which is not to say that billy woods heard critics comparing his sound to that of 90s hip-hop and cranked out a “throwback 90s hip-hop album.” Far from it; woods himself has been vocally critical of so-called throwback rap, once spitting, “I break up trees on your fourth-generation imitation Premier beat CDs / That’s definitely not the flavor, and trust me, you’re not doing the 90s no favors.” What separates him from those artists who strive to recreate the supposed sound of 90s hip-hop is that woods instead aims to flip a familiar formula in order to create music that’s anything but formulaic. Yes, there are choruses on every song on this album, and yes, several of them are conducive to call-and-response audience participation, but no, they’re not about getting “brolic” or inviting “ruckus” or anything like that. (Although, to be fair, the “Groundhog Day” refrain of “I wake up and smoke weed” is liable to make some listeners lose their shit, yours truly included.)

Throughout Known Unknowns and indeed much of his work, woods returns to the theme of time’s seamless passage through our lives, with the world continuing to spin out of anyone’s control while little if anything changes other than our minds, and even those remain prisoner to sensory input and motor response. It can be considered a bleak outlook, for sure, but also empowering, in that it dares the listener to at least try thinking and experiencing this world differently, to defy expectation, to surprise oneself.

In a recent interview for Passion of the Weiss, writer Donna-Claire asked woods, “How does the fluidity of knowledge come across on the record?”

He responded, “I think more about turning that inwards and making it things about yourself and your everyday life, and those known unknowns. Things you do know you’ll do in situations, things you don’t know you’ll do in situations.”

What do you know? Noch besser, what do you know you don’t?

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