billy woods & Kenny Segal: Maps

In billy woods’ music, personal history is global history. There’s a recurring figure in his songs: the Average Joe thrust onto the world stage and forced to select from a menu of bad choices. “It ain’t no compromise, I’m Ho Chi Minh, ruthless, MC Ren/Small caliber, close range, General Nguyen,” he rapped on 2012’s “The Foreigner,” likening a petty street beef to the Vietnam War. Alone and as one half of Armand Hammer, he’s turned such juxtapositions into a mad and beautiful science. His unorthodox rhymes hit like jet lag, scrambling the body’s sense of time and space.

Fittingly, woods’ second team-up with Los Angeles producer Kenny Segal is a travelog. Maps, a concept album about the highs and lows of touring, decisively enters the pair into the ranks of rap’s great stylists and storytellers. Reposed and taut, elegant and menacing, woods’ dispatches wind around Segal’s kooky boom-bap like a boa on a branch. The pair are road warriors attuned to the horrors and wonders of the world, trading the cramped dread of 2019’s Hiding Places for the horizonless totality of a desert. The road leads everywhere and nowhere at once.

As a Jamaican and Zimbabwean New Yorker who grew up on two continents, Woods regularly incorporates distant locales, global cuisines, and snatches of other languages into his writing. But in recent years, his voice has become as worldly as his pen. Across HaramAethiopes, and Church, he’s honed a range of sighs, cadences, and artful pauses that add flavor to his oration. He’s no impressionist, but his masterful storytelling brings people and places to life with quick, visceral strokes. “Delivery fee is ooof,” he exhales on “Rapper Weed,” shaving two words from the apocryphal Hemingway short story challenge.

The one-liners, punches, and vignettes on Maps are legendary, packed with detail and delivered with impeccable timing. woods’ itinerant flow will always be an acquired taste, but his command of it is undeniable. His voice slashes through the air like a gavel strike, commanding and weighted. He can pack a saga into a couplet. “Learned the hard way, motherfuckers will run in shooting/After we spent months tryna strategize,” he raps on “Blue Smoke,” his annoyed tone filling in the story. His sardonic deadpan is so effective that even simple bars like “You can’t fix stupid” and “The earth is a sphere” become gut-busters.

On “Waiting Around,” a flirtation in Belgium doubles as a slick waltz through Cam’ron’s discography: “Jaundiced moon, she had perfect teeth/Purple haze had ya boy like come home with me/She kissed my cheek/Diplomacy.” The album is packed with such wordplay, all of it brisk and tactile. Instead of emphasizing immersion in distant places and sounds like M.I.A.’s Kala, Yasiin Bey’s The Ecstatic, and Mach-Hommy’s Pray for HaitiMaps foregrounds transit. woods’ perspective-hopping writing leans into the flux of experiencing the world in fragments: hazy conversations and bad sleep shadow him as he shuffles between time zones. It feels like he’s a fugitive rather than a tourist.

Kenny Segal matches that motion with kaleidoscopic production that shifts like tides. He brings out all the stops for this record, supplying free-jazz freakouts (“Blue Smoke”), dreary loops (“Bad Dreams Are Only Dreams”), and jackknife beat switches (“Babylon by Bus”). Some songs, like the bluesy “Houdini” and wistful “FaceTime,” are filigreed with instruments that embellish the settings and moods of woods’ tales.

Others, like “Year Zero,” which features a stunning Danny Brown verse, are spartan voids of creaky percussion and eerie synths that play up woods’ wry prophesizing. The globetrotting beats of Maps might initially scan as more conservative than the abrasive and experimental soundscape of Hiding Places, but the variety is forward-thinking. Segal understands that woods, who has gained a reputation as a doomsayer, is at his core an explorer. His beats push woods into new sonic and narrative spaces.

woods still drops doom bombs (see: “Sooner or later gonna be two unrelated active shooters/Same place, same time, great minds, Tesla and Edison”), but throughout Maps he also follows the slivers of light peeking through the crawl spaces he normally calls home. “I crack a smile at what you say is the truth/I be dead serious laughin’ in the stu,” he says on “Hangman,” finding bemused comfort in conversations with idiots. “I will not be at soundcheck,” he repeats with defiance on the puckish “Soundcheck” as he absconds to chow on some Szechuan food. Despite its myriad miseries and inconveniences—especially crappy and/or overpriced weed, a nuisance woods brings up with charming frequency—the road still offers detours and escape routes. 

Adjusting the temperature to livable also allows woods to showcase his cinematic eye. The record is exquisitely sensory: a housecat greets the returning traveler with purrs, conch fritters crisp in the skillet, weed smells like turpentine and tastes of “Jamaican oranges” that look like limes. These tiny delights often give way to unguarded relief. “For a brief, sweet moment, it was nothing in the thought bubble/From up here the lakes is puddles, the land unfold/Brown and green, it’s a quiet puzzle,” woods reflects on “Soft Landing,” which interpolates the pop standard “Feeling Good.” The line revisits a point of view from last year’s tetchy “Paraquat”—“Clouds cleared, I’m looking at the city like jihadis in a cockpit”—but there’s no grim irony, just awe.

woods returns to several themes and ideas from previous records with fresh eyes—most notably home, the subtext of all road epics. “NYC Tapwater” tenderly catalogs the unique pleasures of life in New York City then ends by clarifying it’s a cruel place. It’s not a twist; it’s a warning from someone who has settled into the mirage. On the dreamy “Agriculture,” which is splashed with warm hums and twinkly keys, a pastoral refuge fails to cure the protagonist’s anguish: “Stooped in the coop, gathering eggs/Traded some to the neighbors for fresh bread/I say I’m at peace, but it’s still that same dread.” Letting light into songs gives the darkness more weight.

According to woods, Maps is a “post-pandemic” album because it emerged from his hectic tour schedule following quarantine, but that description also fits its apprehensive mood. It navigates a future that is indistinguishable from the past, turning history’s queasy loops into a dazzling torque.  The pair’s songwriting is so inventive and electric that even the depths of the late capitalist abyss begin to offer pathways to freedom. “I already knew the options was lose-lose/Baby, that’s nothing new,” woods raps with devilish charm on “The Layover,” “That just make it easier to choose.” There’s no better way to fly.

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billy woods & Kenny Segal: Maps