Perhaps it’s because of his commitment to obscuring his face in all press photos and music videos, but billy woods’ voice has always constituted a great deal of the rapper’s artistic status. His powerful and, at times, preacher-esque delivery may not be instantly distinguishable from that of fellow East Coast MCs, but the New York wordsmith has a way of articulating his rhymes that makes even his explorations of mundane topics enthralling and his small snapshots of specific scenarios comprehensive. This is particularly true of woods’ previous full-length project, 2015’s Today, I Wrote Nothing, which is comprised of 24 brief tracks that provide disjointed glimpses into esoteric events and situations, making the 18-song length of the underground rapper’s latest record, Known Unknowns, short by comparison. Likewise, woods’ newest undertaking marks a return to the disenfranchised politics and abstruse pop culture references that defined the musician’s identity on previous material, such as his breakout record, History Will Absolve Me, and its follow-up, Dour Candy. Similarly, woods, once again, employs the help of family faces from Dour Candy, not solely with the guest verses from friends from the subterranean hip hop scene — like Aesop Rock and E L U C I D, the other half of woods’ rap duo Armand Hammer — but with fellow knickerbocker Blockhead (born Tony Simon) being behind the desk for the whole album, rather than producing just the odd track, as was the case on Today, I Wrote Nothing. Although his work with woods seldom sees the incorporation of left-field production quirks that the DJ is known to employ when working with frequent collaborator Aesop Rock, Blockhead harks back to the classic boom bap sound of New York on Known Unknowns and does the style as much justice as ever. Indeed, from a production point of view, woods’ latest album is one for the hip hop purists, but the definitive edge to woods’ obtuse wordplay maintains the mental stimulation that many look for in underground rap. Overall, although limited in its originality and diversity, Known Unknowns is another arresting adventure into alternative hip hop’s most arcane crevices for billy woods.
Undoubtedly, the best tracks from Known Unknowns see the pairing of woods and Blockhead come together as one unit, playing off one another as to make for some exceptionally infectious moments, and this is clear right from the onset with the opening track, Bush League. Although the looped, bass and drum-driven funk groove that is peppered with punchy horns is nothing new for the classic East Coast production style, the swells of soulful vocals, record scratches and crunchy guitar twang subtly expand the mix and progress the song, with various components of the cut hitting satisfying counterpoints every now and then. Similarly, the way in which the track’s buoyant horns interplay with woods’ hook, almost creating a sense of call and response, elevates what is already an especially sticky refrain to one of the most memorable in the tracklisting. Even some of the shortest songs in the tracklisting boast impressively varied and dynamic instrumental structures, with the initial brass band sample that kickstarts Washington Redskins eventually being swapped out for a squelchy synth lead, before all but the drums and woods’ vocals cut out altogether, paving the way for a meaty bass riff to bring the rest of the timbre back into the mix for a final victory lap. Likewise, woods’ fittingly ferocious flow on Superpredator is bolstered by a booming beat from Blockhead, with the stocky, spacious snare sound being borderline industrial in its stark tone, whilst the clunking chords from the metallic piano play against a brooding guitar melody as to dramatically reinforce the track’s menacing demeanour. This nocturnal atmosphere, however, is almost completely dissipated following the introduction of a bluesy harmonica solo under woods’ hook, which epitomises much of the duality in the MC’s artistry that makes his off-kilter style so compelling at the best of times. Case in point, hearing the tragic hilarity of woods picking apart life’s monotony on Groundhogs Day — with blunt bars, like the incessant repetition of, “I wake up and smoke weed”, unreservedly hammering home this theme — atop a joyous instrumental of playful, almost nursery rhyme-like female vocals adds to subverted comedy of the song and its stand-out lines, especially, “I’m how come we don’t have nice things”.
Indeed, as is often the case with billy woods, the most entertaining lyrical endeavours from Known Unknowns see the rapper’s brand of outsider politics and unconventional world philosophy conveyed with comedic undertones, sometimes with an ironic or depressive edge, in such a way as to spit as many snappy one-liners as he does whole verses on profound subject matter. The quasi-paranoid warnings against government surveillance during the first verse of Everybody Knows, for example, see ear-pricking quips worked in amongst the broader message, with the line, “Big Brother just an app on your iPad” being an especially potent reminder that most personal information handed over to executive bodies is done voluntarily through online activity. The instrumentation also plays a significant role in cogently conveying this cautionary tale, with the downtrodden beat and bassy piano melody crafting a tense mood that could act as the soundtrack to someone snooping around somewhere in secret. The succeeding song, Police Came To My Show, deals with similar themes of scepticism towards authority, but in a self-aware and, at times, self-deprecating fashion that makes for one of the best instances of dry wit from Known Unknowns, although it isn’t entirely evident at which points woods is laughing along with the listener. Certainly, with the MC punctuating points in the story with transitions like, “Zero merch sales later” there is a definite, deliberate comedy to the cut, but the premise of woods being paranoid up on stage, conscious that a pair of plainclothes police officers are amidst the meagre crowd, performing with various worst-case scenarios playing out in his head, is amusing from the listener’s perspective, although whether or not the rapper is chuckling about this in retrospect is not quite so conspicuous. Of course, with billy woods, and many of his collaborators brought onto Known Unknowns, being no strangers to deadpan humour, it’s safe to assume that there is practically always a comedic undercurrent to their lyricism, with the verses from the trio of Aesop Rock, billy woods and Homeboy Sandman on Wonderful making somewhat of an underground hip hop circus of a posse cut. Needless to say, there is a great deal of chemistry amongst the three MCs, as well as between each individual rapper and Blockhead, especially given that the producer is most well-known for his work with Aesop Rock. As such, Aesop comes through with one of his signature punctuated performances, with Blockhead’s beat accentuating the rapper’s rapid-fire rhymes masterfully, as he weaves through wondrous wordplay and brandishes his astounding alliterative ability.
Most definitely, both musically and lyrically, Known Unknowns encapsulates the best aspects of billy woods’ artistry and presents them over the course of a solid selection of polished and well-performed cuts with a classic New York tinge. If there is one point of hesitancy that the musician’s newest endeavour engenders, however, it regards woods’ growth as an artist. There are surely moments that allude to significant technical development for the MC since Dour Candy, but with Today, I Wrote Nothing being such a substantial tone shift for woods, one can’t help but wonder what instigated the drastic stylistic leaps between his past few projects, with Known Unknowns, ultimately, being a return to the familiar for the artist. Given the extent to which he hones in on his abilities on this album, and the fantastic results it yields, such a choice is perfectly respectable, but, although flawed, Today, I Wrote Nothing seemed to mark the beginning of a new, experimental era in billy woods’ chronology, so to hear the musician continue pursuing the brand of alternative hip hop established on his earlier output came as somewhat of a surprise. I must reiterate, with the record being as great as it is, I have no problem with this, but considering that woods is hardly the only one of his kind within New York’s underground rap scene, it seems appropriate to speculate about how long the rapper can retain his unique voice amongst the growing crowd of similar artists. Nonetheless, woods has maintained such a consistent level of quality, with his pool of refreshing ideas seemingly never running dry, as is primely exemplified on Known Unknowns, that the MC will likely continue to be one step ahead of his competition for the foreseeable future and, for many, will still wear the crown of New York’s underground hip hop scene.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10