billy woods (feat. Boldy James & Gabe ‘Nandez) – “Sauvage”

billy woods is absolutely in a class of his own. That fact is crystal clear when listening to Aethiopes.

I’ll say it again: woods is an artist who is pushing boundaries in music, creating dense and incisive hip-hop that is heavily rooted in history, politics, philosophy, and woods’ lived experiences. woods is a hood griot, an invisible dude speaking from the margins, weaving through abstract and personal topics with a master stroke. Everything is coded but right out in the open, and woods’ commentary is often cynical and darkly comic. One moment he is referencing African post-colonial figures you need to Google to catch, the other he’s talking about how he’s being told he can’t light up in church.

It’s astonishing to witness woods’ career unfold over the past decade. I first wrote about him nearly 10 years ago (!), at the time calling his then-latest release History Will Absolve Me (a really prescient title in retrospect) a future classic, and it’s been something else to see his progression. woods has dropped a record nearly every year for the past decade (solo and with Elucid as Armand Hammer) and he just keeps getting better with each release, And it’s heartening to see more people catch on to his brilliance.

Aethiopes is, in my view, woods’ best work yet. It’s a stellar, heady album that hangs over you like weed smoke. woods is in peak form on this album, delivering crushing stories, sharp commentary, and caustic one-liners. Plus, the guest list is ridiculous (Bringing out El-P AND Breeze Brewin’ on a single track? woods tracking down freakin’ Despot for a show-stealing feature that’s one of the best verses of 2022? SHINEHEAD?).

And I have to mention the production. woods enlists NYC DJ Preservation to handle the entire record. Drawing from world music and obscure grooves, Preservation’s sounds are eclectic, erratic, and unnerving. It perfectly locks in with woods’ performances, and lends the album a cohesive and heavy feel. At one moment it taps into some Ka-like energy (makes sense, since Preservation did an album with him), and another it hits you with some massive, dancehall beat drops (woods is from yard!). Also, the pacing and sequencing of this record is sublime!

Okay, so let’s get to a song. This record is full of gems, but I had to choose “Sauvage” because it’s downright sinister. From the jump, Preservation’s beat clobbers you, with blunt drum hits, nervous chimes, and those piercing notes. Guests Boldy James and Gabe Nandez deliver fantastic verses here, but its woods who digs deep into the darkness. Back on 2019’s Hiding Places woods said he was “too scared to write the book,” but god-damn, his verse here is quite a vivid tale, reminiscing on neighborhood kids and all terrible the things that happened to them, much like that movie Kids but deeper in hell. It’s chilling, despondent, and unforgettable.

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