Thursday, June 15, 2017

Billy Woods - Known Unknowns Review

When MF DOOM reinvigorated the underground scene with his plethora of characters and mysterious personhood in the early 2000's, the mask that bore into his face began to represent an anti-capitalist agenda that was burgeoning at the time. Ironically though, whether intentional or not, that mask ended up being DOOM's calling card. A marketing ploy like none other, by donning the mask to deter post-Y2K consumerism DOOM incidentally caused all to fixate on him. Therefore, due to humanity's insistent on knowing the unknown, a reclusive artist can't thrive solely on the merits of their music. Or can they? While half the allure of Daft Punk, Jandek, The Residents, or Burial arises in their enigmatic stature, an emcee from New York City has been curating broken and battered Hip-Hop for over a decade now without ever revealing his face. And for fans of Billy Woods, they couldn't care less (and in many cases, they respect it, lowering the camera at live shows to below neck level). The artist himself rarely draws attention to his secrecy, forcing listeners to zero in on the words, the messages, and the urgency. Woods' persona, or lack thereof, acts as an anti-everything manifesto, denouncing the actions of modern society with swift, precise punches to the gut. Known Unknowns, his sixth LP, is no different.

The negatives against Woods' appeal rarely reaches past this normality. It's the one thing holding him back; the fact that each album of his abides by the same approach. A hefty array of songs, all ranging in the two to three minute range, stripped of any excess, fixated on Abstract and East Coast Hip-Hop, obsessed with portraying society's problems. Really, it's easy to see why many are put off. However, once Woods' music is understood, in that nothing released thus far has been a calculated move, the remarkable candor of a rapper rapping for rapping's sake is tantalizing. Woods' vast knowledge, not just of the English language, but politics, historical events, Hip-Hop, street issues, personal memories, and cultural relevancy all adds to the infinitely complex web that is Known Unknowns, and Woods' discography as a whole. Learning of new, reinforced perspectives while failing to learn anything about Woods himself is something, I'm sure, the emcee prides himself on. It's likely at the heart of the album's title. And yet, it's hard to ignore the setbacks of an album that can be put on shuffle without one being aware of the change.

Coincidentally enough, that nonlinear album structuring blends nicely into our current era of streaming playlist-style projects. When everything's at your fingertips, accessibility means your favorites take precedent. For me, the first standout is 'Unstuck.' Backed by minimal Jazz Rap led by dated samples and fidgeting finger snaps, the melodramatic 'Unstuck' isn't the only track on Known Unknowns to sport a more melodic tune, something that was entirely absent on 2015's Today, I Know Nothing. 'Fall Back' and 'Strawman' are two separate examples of this pace-shift, with the former setting the production back so Woods' building temper becomes the focal point, while the latter somehow works despite inspirational Pop Rap akin to The Roots. Fear not diehard fans, Known Unknowns still features a plethora of the classic Woods sound, plucked from the streets, boiled in a steaming lava pit like the man himself. Like much of Woods' content, tracks like 'Washington Redskins' and 'Source Awards' tackle a specific issue face first. The former denounces the inaction to move past the racial name 'redskin' for the NFL team due to stubbornness and greed, while the latter pokes fun at the mockery that is the BET Source Awards. There's even 'Groundhogs Day,' which finds an inoperative lifestyle at the heart of stoner culture.

However, the best of this bunch is 'Superpredator' and 'Police Came To My Show.' Despite a clunky harmonica in the chorus, 'Superpredator' violently analyzes a madman murder spree, with some of Woods' best rapping to date. "Lean out the car one eye closed, to wash negros off the block like a fire hose" is just one of the filthy highlights. And while 'Police Came To My Show' is more humorous, the every night struggles of Woods trying to make a living on stage captures the heart of the underground. However, like the litter consuming the album's cover, there are a handful of forgettable tracks that would've been better left brushed to the side. Much of these, like 'Bush League,' 'Snake Oil,' and 'Cheap Shoes' are due to redundancies in Woods' vast catalogue, acting as stereotypical cuts that fail to provide fresh substance. Unfortunately, longtime collaborator Elucid's two appearances, 'Tupac Jackets' and 'Nomento,' contribute to the filler. The attention-grabbing 'Wonderful,' with Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman, does not. Emulating the classic underground scene, the lyrical jukes from all three emcees act as a battle rap with distinguished guests. Believe it or not, Homeboy Sandman takes home the crown.

There's one name crucial to Known Unknowns that I've failed to mention; Blockhead. The underground stalwart may have had a greater effect on the album's appeal than Billy Woods himself, for the production that he handles varies greatly in tone, enough to make it feel as if Woods is doing the same. This was sorely missed on Today, I Know Nothing, but pleasantly appreciated on 2013's Dour Candy, the last time these two linked up in whole. Blockhead's sample-heavy curiosity feels revitalized here, like with 'Groundhogs Day's' chipper children's choir, 'Keloid's' haunting atmospherics, or the Boom Bap DJ scratching of 'Gazpacho.' Blockhead's presence is always felt, and one that brings color to Billy Woods' dreary world. Vocal samples contextualize the past (MF DOOM on 'Wonderful' and 'Keloid'), while others epitomize the present (scholar on 'Unstuck,' crowd fighting on 'Source Awards'). There's even an instance of spiritual reincarnation on 'Robespierre,' Known Unknowns' closer. Barrie McLain, who does a superb job here and on 'Strawman,' borrows the refrain from Nirvana's 'Come As You Are' when she drawls out the "memoria" by adding "and I don't have a gun." The ending is strong, distinct, and audacious by Billy Woods' standards. An insistence on staying true to one's creed doesn't diminish the impact Known Unknowns makes.

No comments:

Post a Comment