Album Review: billy woods – Aethiopes

[Backwoodz Studioz; 2022]

billy woods has worked with dozens of producers across his two decades plus in the game, but of late he’s found greatest success with album-length projects entirely produced by one collaborator. Whether it’s his team up with Kenny Segal on Hiding Places or having The Alchemist provide beats for the entirety of Armand Hammer’s Haram, having a tonal through-line has proven effective in delivering the most impact from his elusive, mystical raps.

For his latest, Aethiopes, he’s working in tandem with Preservation, a producer with a list of collaborators and credits as long as woods’. The pair have worked together before on a few tracks for woods’ recent albums, but this time Pres is bought all the way in; he’s tuned into the rapper’s heady concepts and is dreaming up the vision right alongside him from first thought to last. This symbiosis between producer and rapper is key to the album’s unmitigated success. While woods is drawing from pockets of African and European history, Pres is pulling obscure samples from geographical sources that perfectly interlock with the tone and concept. 

With the title Aethiopes being an ancient word for African, the cover image borrowed from the 1661 painting “Two Moors” by Dutch master Rembrandt, and a song called “Haarlem” after the region of Amsterdam that would eventually give name to the multi-cultural area of New York City, there is evidently a grander narrative about slavery, historical immigration and the Black diaspora at large at play. Throughout, images of ships abound, inviting you to envision a continual narrative of cold and callous human behaviour. However, it’s likely that woods is the only person who can see the entirety of the invisible strings that connect the thousands of dots he draws – and you don’t need to see the big picture to appreciate the art. Much like Rembrandt’s legendary “The Night Watch”, moving in close and looking at the detail amid the shadows is just as impactful as taking in the greater whole.

And, if there’s one person who understands that, it’s Pres, who arms the rapper with the perfectly-sourced sounds and samples for each of his forays. On early cut “No Hard Feelings”, the producer lays out a drone of African horns, their shifting pitch pushing woods’ bars to greater, more exasperated lengths as he flits from one African’s horrific demise to the next. The following “Wharves” features whispered percussion that is dominated by the glassy echoes of mbira – a usually joyous sound that becomes hollow and cold when combined with the rapper’s words about shipwrecked German colonisers turning to cannibalism to survive. On “The Doldrums”, Pres provides a beat that’s so stutteringly atmospheric that it feels zombified, while woods shifts between times and settings with hallucinogenic fluidity; images of horses being thrown overboard mingle with snapshots of dirty urban corners, all interspersed with unsettling lessons; “Moms shook her head “you shouldn’t wear a dead man’s shoe”.”

Death and violence loom large on Aethiopes, and woods’ staid, steady flow ensures that its not glorified or breezed past: he wants to confront you with images that might haunt you at night. “King of all Blacks, I eat human hearts” he begins “Haarlem” before taking us on a head-spinning journey through middle-age Dutch streets that ends up with him and Fatboi Sharif rapping over piano chords that chatter like freezing paupers. On “Versailles” he references Albert Camus’ classic novel L’Étranger as he warns the heat and poor pay will lead him to killing an Arab on the beach. 

The guests, when they drop by, are also quickly sucked into the heavy atmosphere that the duo have created, and deliver bars that show they’re just as engrossed. Perhaps none are more perfectly attuned than Boldy James, whose murderous verse tees up “Sauvage” to become a bloodthirsty sharing of darkest desires that also sees Gabe Nandez bring up the rear with a straightforward don’t-fuck-with-me send off. Mike Ladd also provides a highlight on the slithering acoustic bop “Christine” where he drops as many obscure historical and comic book references as woods, all delivered in a seductive gangster whisper. The shape-shifting posse cut “NYNEX” finds ELUCID, Quelle Chris and Denmark Vessey each invited to spin their visions of a dysfunctional near future, with none topping woods’ proclamation that “The future isn’t flying cars, it’s Rachel Dolezal absolved” (although Vessey goes pretty hard with “Subjugation is the mother of invention / Someone’s pain is some other motherfucker’s pension”).

However, these are mere bit-part players in woods’ and Pres’ horrific side show. The duo have made an album that lures you in with rhymes and tones that are perfectly attuned to each other, augment each other and make it clear that there is something important being told here. woods’ words are vivid in his own unique way, and with Pres adding colour, Aethiopes ends up feeling like a series of heavily stylised comic strips – though these are more Alan Moore than weekend funnies. The album’s overwhelming atmosphere invites you to pore over the tracks, to take in each detail the light reaches, then comb over them again for everything you’ve missed. There’s multiple histories within, their twisted appearances tempting you to ease in closer, to discover more – which only leads down deeper wormholes. The details of woods’ work will still be getting discovered, decoded and debated in a few generations’ time.