Writing is a unique art form, to say the least. We’re all forced to do it from a young age, taught to scribe our thoughts onto a sheet in a more measured manner than blurting out the first thing that pops into our heads. In this way, writing is speech’s pensive brother, offering a meditative streak to the way we articulate ourselves.
With writing comes many different forms that all contain their own quirks and qualities. There’s the symbolically-laden short story that offers a peek through the blindfolds of a subject; the full-length novel, which allows the reader to become entirely immersed within an alphabetically-constructed universe; the emotional brevity of poetry, that breathes meaning into the author’s selection of every single word; and then music – and its wordiest genre – hip-hop.
Personally, I’ve found a handful of underground hip-hop artists to be some of the best overall writers of any medium, showcasing imagery, symbolism and nuance that stands toe-to-toe with the great novelists of any time. And maybe the best of these literary-minded musicians is rapper billy woods.
woods is not somebody you’re likely to hear out and about; he truly is, in every sense of the phrase, an underground indie artist, operating under his own label (Backwoodz Studioz) and only recently finding widespread critical acclaim – or even being recognized by critical publications at all. But beyond his lack of recognition, it’s woods’ pen that shines through, offering a quality of writing that deserves to be celebrated by the brightest minds in academia. And the sparkling gem in woods’ crown of verbal discourse is 2019’s “Hiding Places,” a collaborative project with producer Kenny Segal.
On the album’s opening track, “SpongeBob,” some of woods references include Japan’s retreat at the end of World War II, “Lean On Me” artist Bill Withers and the popular children’s cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants” and he somehow ties them all together seamlessly. Beneath all of woods’ references, there’s an undercurrent of emotional unease sprouting from a life of paranoia.
“It’s too late for qualms with the hammer in the palm / You a slave to the hammer, you do what it wants,” woods raps, pitting us as the reluctant perpetrator of gruesome violence. It’s not so much that woods is paranoid – that’s far too shallow an interpretation of art that carries with it so much depth. It seems that he lives an introspective life informed by a violent past he’ll never be able to escape, and while this past gives him wisdom beyond his years, there remains an incessant ripple of trauma that grabs ahold of his spine. “Don’t tell me that’s the past / I live in the past jack,” woods raps on “Red Dust.”
The listener never receives any big-picture, clearly-defined stories; nothing seems to be clear in his music. Rather, it’s the emotions and the images he describes that give his writing life. The amplest comparison for woods may be Cormac McCarthy, who rarely names his characters or concretely describes them, but makes the reader attached to their thoughts and spirit all the same. woods raps of distressing situations, of political unrest, of hidden passports, societal inequities, reclusive tendencies, but his music isn’t depressing; it exudes empathy for those who seldom receive it and displays the knowledge of a learned historian.
When he’s at his best, woods paints verbal pictures with a pen that seemingly shudders with emotion as he scribes the words. On “A Day in a Week in a Year,” he describes a woman putting chrysanthemums and daffodils in the burnt ends of crack pipes held by an army of people with drug addictions. On the same song, he describes himself as a child, pretending to play an arcade machine because he doesn’t have the money to, likening the situation to the economic disadvantages many are unjustly subject to in America. “Life is just two quarters in the machine / But, either you got it or you don’t, that’s the thing,” he raps in heartbreaking deadpan.
While “Hiding Places” is a masterpiece through and through, there are a handful of moments like these that set woods apart as a modern-day genius. Throughout the album, woods constructs a handful of his own proverbs that sound as if they were contrived by some of the Old World’s greatest thinkers. He cements himself as a modern-day philosopher, stringing together one-liners that each carry the weight of an anvil. Among the best are: “A labyrinth is not a maze”; “I’m chillin’ like Africans who never felt the whip”; and “No surprise, the rich suggest you do more with less.” Heady meditations like these aren’t supposed to come from rap music – or, at least that’s what “whitey” wants you to believe, as woods would say.
While simply reading woods’ writing is an undertaking in and of itself, listening to his music is absolutely vital. woods is aware that hip-hop is a sonic artform and doesn’t let this advantage go to waste, constantly experimenting with unique sounds and variations in his vocal delivery. This translates to a palpable intensity throughout “Hiding Places” that’s hair-raising; when woods raises his voice to a near-scream on the album (which is often), he becomes cinematic in his captivation.
“Checkpoints,” the third song on “Hiding Places,” is like being caught in an aural thunderstorm. Over clashing symbols and roaring guitar rips via producer Kenny Segal, woods showers the unrelenting fervor of a thousand piercing razor blades onto the listener, matching the intensity of the production step for step. The song is scathing and measured, intense and intelligent, never letting the insurmountable passion in woods’ voice overtake the tightly-chosen words. “Pace the palace wing, dethroned king jump when the phone ring / Egyptian cotton, but you can’t sleep, not a wink, not a wink / You can’t blink, not a wink,” woods raps, depicting the anxiety of a fallen ruler fearing his life despite the luxury that surrounds him. It’s this astute intelligence wrapped within such an electrifying sonic potency that makes woods unlike anybody else.
woods’ intensity comes to a climax on the album’s closer, “Red Dust.” Reciting a violent maelstrom of beautiful poetry, woods breaks down the consuming nature of a relationship. As he describes the scene, it isn’t clear whether he’s depicting a confession of love or a murder in progress – and that’s the point. “I want us to be alone in your home / I wanna suck the marrow out your bones / I wanna show you what I learned from the worst people I ever known / I wanna follow you like the jakes / I wanna swallow you, show you the hate inside, it’s a lake / So cold, so deep,” woods passionately raps, his words echoing into the infinity. The power in his words is mesmerizing, and these two final verses are somehow equally disturbing as they are elegant.
woods recently released his second album of 2019, titled “Terror Management.” Because I’ve only spent a few days with it, it’s hard to really say anything definitive about the album. His writing is incredibly layered and takes a multitude of listens to form any sort of opinions or conclusions about. Rather than speculate on my current surface-level understanding of it, all I can say is that I’m more than excited to dig up each ornate meaning woods has buried deep into its soil.
billy woods’ music is a quintessential example of how complex, authentic and captivating hip-hop can be when seriously considered as a form of literature. His writing speaks for itself, vying to be mentioned in the canon of great American writers. While woods has brushed off the question in interviews (such as a 2017 interview with Passion of the Weiss where he deferentially states that he’s never published a novel, so to consider him within literature is absurd), he’s also well aware of the systematic reasons why he and many other great hip-hop artists may never be put into this category of written-word elites. Nevertheless, we can only hope woods takes his own advice via “Western Education is Forbidden”:
“My advice, don’t stop rhymin’, UPS not hiring.”