In horror movies, it’s said that what you don’t see is more terrifying than what you do.
There’s no need for egregious gore and disfigurement, rather, it’s far more unsettling to imagine that whatever is out there is lurking just off-screen, out of sight – hiding.
And on Hiding Places, billy woods and producer, Kenny Segal, use the ‘don’t show the monster rule’ to devastating effect.
billy motherfuckin’ woods. Enigmatic, elusive, sporting an all lower-case moniker and armed with a colossal mic presence. It might be no caps when you spell the man’s name but this dude does not require capitals letters to be proper.
woods has been around the catacombs of the indie-rap scene since the early 00s, with long-standing ties to legendary NY duo, Cannibal Ox. Over the last few years, the New York native, and founder of Backwoodz Studioz, has been on a prolific killing spree, releasing a slew of high-quality material including 2012’s History Will Absolve Me, Dour Candy (2013), Today I Wrote Nothing (2015) as well as a critically-acclaimed cult favourite from 2017, Known Unknowns, alongside veteran Manhattan producer, Blockhead.
Throw in Los Angeles-based beatsmith and Project Blowed affiliate, Kenny Segal, and you have an intimidating meld of hypnotic loops and entrancing flows.
‘Spongebob’ is an opening jaw-breaker, creating the vibe of gradual menace – like the tide slowly engulfing you. woods spits with indignant disdain across this curtain-raiser, reeling off lines like: “…Had the nerve to say you can’t take it with ya/ the fuck would I want with any of this shit?!”.
Early on, it’s a signal of woods’ unflinching vividness and monopoly on sinister lines. But you can also peep the smirk behind the microphone. ‘Steak Knives’, set over a jarring instrumental, pays homage to André 3000’s classic verse from ‘Elevators’, and is an early foreshadowing of the Backwoodz’s emcee’s acerbic wit.
To that end, homages are lurking all over Hiding Places, with multiple nods to MF DOOM, a Wu-Tang in-joke, and perhaps most intriguingly, a chorus (with tongue firmly-in-cheek) lamenting where Nas is at these days.
‘Spider Hole’, underscored by a palpable beat from Kenny Segal, sees woods exude grim wisdom about historical voyeurism and colonial rule before proclaiming on the chorus: “I don’t wanna go see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall/ No man of the people, I wouldn’t be caught dead with most of y’all/”.
A grinding guitar riff kicks in on the song’s second half. It’s a dark sky and lightning bolts vibe, revving woods’ words and delivering knockout blows from short jabs.
Similarly, ‘Checkpoints’ sees woods assume the role of a deadpan comedian, throwing out tattoo-worthy quotables. ‘Toothy’ takes it further, the NY wordsmith navigates Segal’s deceptively simple arrangement to calibrate your imagination like a kid pulling a kite on a windy day. woods causes facial contortions, spitting: “I pump the brakes/ Sheepish face/ How bad you wanna know like a box of unmarked VHS tapes?/ In your dad’s storage space, nobody knew about until he passed…/”.
There’s a visual, but the footage is unclear. It’s grainy, soundless clips showing you some fucked up shit. billy woods presents his stories in snapshots, never quite allowing you to see the full picture. Instead, it’s a depraved photo album stuffed with corresponding newspaper clippings.
But it is woods’ capacity to spin so many plates in one verse that’s ultra impressive. ‘Bigfakelaugh’, an anti-reality anthem, references concentration camps, secret passageways, a reluctance to be on camera, medical bills and incontinence – all while underlining the drudgery and morbidity of modern life. woods is seemingly incapable of leaving the listener’s state-of-mind unaffected, snapping: “You really want to keep it a secret?/ Hide it from yourself…/” – the heaviness of his words will stay with you long after Segal’s outro has faded.
It’d be unfair to gush about billy woods without recognising Kenny Segal’s immense contribution to this album. ‘Speak Gently’, which features a welcome appearance from Freestyle Fellowship member, Self Jupiter, deadens the listener with a chilling beat switch, reminiscent of a score for someone getting their head chopped off in the dark.
From the disorienting crash of ‘Bedtime’, to billy woods’ Armand Hammer rhyming partner, Elucid, flawlessly squeezing-off syllables on ‘Crawlspace’ – the album is overflowing with finesse and complexity. At times, it can be too heavy to hold. But as much as this album verbally throws cold water in your face, it has moments of genuine tenderness and emotional poignancy.
The beautifully-constructed, ‘A Day in a Week in a Year’, shows woods in an all-together more vulnerable state. Speaking on absurd childhood habits, the significance of which become clearer with time and perspective, woods raps: “I was still hitting the buttons game over on the screen/ Dollar movie theatre, dingy-foyer, little kid without a penny to my name/ Fucking with the joystick, pretending I was really playing…/”. A haunting chorus from songstress, Mothermary, gives the track an ethereal quality – it’s a standout on an album of standouts.
Kenny Segal, however, saves his best work for the album closer, the contemplative, ‘Red Dust’. Segal’s gorgeous instrumental is like a desert at twilight; it’s nightfall on the Sierra Nevada mountains. woods juxtaposes violent imagery with themes of intimate, desperate dependence. It feels like a song of a thousand interpretations, and in many ways, it epitomises the best of both contributors.
Hiding Places is quite comfortably a contender for Album of the Year. billy woods wields a lexical omnipotence and effortless wit; there’s barely a drop of sweat on his genius. Segal dovetails superbly, skilfully balancing compositional diversity and relentless intensity.
And as verbose and arcane as woods undoubtedly is, he shines by giving his audience credit; in understanding that the ‘hiding places’ are the fault lines in the listener’s grey matter – with whatever’s out there lying-in-wait between your tendrils.
Album Rating: Highly Recommended (4.5)
Poor: 0-2 Stars / Favourable: 2-4 Stars / Highly Recommended: 4-5 Stars