New York alternative hip-hop artist Billy Woods is a bit of an enigma. While he has been tirelessly active and well received in the world of underground hip-hop, both as a solo artist as well as member of Armand Hammer, he is also very elusive and secretive. This personality trait is well reflected in Woods’ music. Known for putting out dark and moody content, Woods focuses on a variety of deep thought topics in his lyrics such as prejudice and existentialism. With over 13 full albums under his belt, seven of which are under his own name as a solo artist, Woods seems to have found comfort in his style and presentation. His most recent solo album “Known Unknowns,” released June 9, is a solid and satisfying project with a whopping 18 cuts, all of which keep up with Woods’ usual subject matter and are produced by trip-hop producers Blockhead and Aesop Rock. However, while Woods’ music usually sticks to a consistent mood or tone, there is a lot more variation and innovation on “Known Unknowns.”
While high praise can be given to every track on the record, the cuts that see Woods taking a few steps out of his comfort zone rise above the rest. A good example is “Wonderful” featuring vocals from fellow underground rappers Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman. The instrumental is rich with diversity and flows a little differently with each of the rappers’ verses. It blends instrumentation from a variety of styles and eras including jazz piano chords, radio broadcast snippets, grungy guitar fills and deep punchy drums to bring it all together. Each rapper takes turns making sarcastic commentary on the passage of time and regrets at the end of a lifespan, making the cut highly introspective and hard to digest with just one listen.
“Strawman” marks the biggest departure from Woods’ usual style, mostly in terms of the instrumentals and tone. It mixes elements of both indie dream pop and soulful R&B, which is a strange mix on its own, but on a Billy Woods track it’s almost unthinkable. It has moody guitar chord progressions and light tinny percussion reminiscent of a DIIV track mixed with soulful, jazzy saxophone samples backed up by smooth vocals from Barrie McLain. The somber mood that these elements provide are backed up by equally somber vocals from Woods. He raps about himself being a straw man, empty and hollow. He argues internally with himself about what is right and wrong and whether or not he’s made the right choices. While Woods is already known for dark and deeply personal lyric writing, this track may just be the most emotional track he’s ever released.
Billy Woods is already well celebrated in the underground hip-hop scene and it doesn’t seem like he’ll be slowing down anytime soon. Releasing solid projects as consistently as he has since his start in 2002 is extremely impressive and it’s a wonder he doesn’t run out of subject matter to write about. While “Known Unknowns” may not be the pinnacle of Woods’ career, it is still consistent, fresh and interesting, with a solid 55 minutes of content. The instrumentals put forth by Blockhead and Aesop Rock backing up Woods’ skill and experience as a writer and performer put this on the radar as one of the most noteworthy hip-hop projects of 2017.
Other great cuts
“Gazpacho”; “Superpredator”; “Bush League”