Album Review: Billy Woods and Kenny Segal - Hiding Places
Sometimes, an album is both so good, and so overwhelming, it’s tough—even intimidating, in a sense—to know where to begin.
I spent the tail end of 2018 making up for lost time from not knowing who Billy Woods was, or just how good of a lyricist and rapper he is, discovering him through Paraffin, the record he released last summer with rapper and producer Elucid, under their Armand Hammer moniker. Musically and lyrically as dark and gritty as the album’s unforgettable cover art, Paraffin was a claustrophobic, compelling listen, blending vivid storytelling, stream of consciousness, and humor.
With very little advance notice, Woods announced he was releasing a new solo album, produced entirely by Kenny Segal. Arriving on March 29th, Hiding Places was preceded with no introductory single—not even a short preview of what could be expected from the album’s 12 tracks.
There was a part of me that was ready to blindly pre-order it, but there was another part of me—the foolish part of me—that apparently needed to hear something off of it first, or was worried about the level of quality it was going to be.
From the moment Hiding Places begins, I realized that I never should have doubted what kind of album Woods would deliver. Not only does it show his growth and development as a writer and performer, making it his best solo outing to date—but it is, without question, one of the finest records of 2019.
Calling Hiding Places a ‘dark’ record is an understatement—in a sense, the word just doesn’t do it justice. Yes, sure, Paraffin was incredibly dark, and Woods’ other solo outings like History Will Absolve Me or Today, I Wrote Nothing aren’t exactly sunny affairs—but this record is fucking bleak.
But that’s the point—there is a desperate, breathless urgency and truth within that despair and desolation. And through Woods’ vivid, evocative imagery, incredibly strong writing, unrelenting lyrical delivery, and the occasional inclusion of subtle humor, he’s put together an insular, imaginative record that blurs all the lines between fact, fiction, and the spaces in between.
The overwhelming feelings that Hiding Places creates come when you begin trying to keep track of, and analyze, the near countless and clever references throughout. The theme of war runs throughout the record—right out of the gate, on the astounding opening track “spongebob,” he states in the first verse: “What goes come back around, so when they came for me, I wasn’t alarmed/Get fished out the hole like Saddam—tough guys won’t go alive, get found unarmed.”
Then, later, on the aptly titled “spider hole,” he almost sounds slightly maddened and slightly gleeful as, at the start of the second verse, he says, “It’s just me in the spider hole—that’s the best part. From here, the war seem really far—the mirror was a shard.”
But Hiding Places isn’t just all heavy metaphors about war and dictators; I mean, there are a lot of heavy metaphors throughout the record, about myriad other things—again, this is just one of the numerous factors contributing to just how overwhelming of a listen it is, both as just a regular listener, for enjoyment, but also with a critical ear.
Buried deep within all that imagery, storytelling, and blurred facts and fiction, is a profound truth—personal, sad, at times very funny, but above all else, incredibly human.
On “spongebob,” for example, when he isn’t conjuring descriptions of Saddam Hussein, in the song’s second verse, he describes, in great detail, the act of simply entering into a bodega to purchase phone cards—the reason why, though, is important. “Overseas connection choppy, she’s getting’ worse,” he begins. “Your sister talked to the nurse, everybody in church—everybody wants to know if you comin’ but they don’t dare say the words. Your days feel rehearsed, nights come back in short bursts.” Then, later, “I don’t wanna see ‘em put her in the dirt/I can’t go there with nothing’ but my shirt.”
‘Mafioso Rap’ was a trend within rap music well over two decades ago—a sub-genre, of sorts, from the gangsta rap that dominated the early to mid 1990s, the intent wasn’t to glorify the idea of organized crime, but it also did very little to detract from the idea that organized crime was, in fact, a very glamorous thing to be involved in.
There are moments when Woods doesn’t exactly slide into ‘Mafioso Rap,’ because, thankfully, that is a trend that has come and gone; he does, however, weave in moments that are built around a compelling narrative of minor dabbling in less than savory activities—“First time I saw them put a trap in the car, eyes wide,” he recalls on “spider hole.” Then, on “houthi,” the song’s refrain evokes a barrage of imagery—“Careful what you ask for, you just might get it—mom showed us where she kept our passports hidden…Better yet, he keep a couple passports with him.”
It’s moments like these where Woods walks a tight rope between the streets and something more thoughtful and clever than what an average rap artist is working into their lyrics. There’s a reason Woods won’t show his face in any promotional photos or videos—in an old interview on Open Mike Eagle’s podcast, he explains it was to protect his identity from when he was younger, and had ‘left (Washington) D.C. in a hurry,’ and was concerned that ‘certain events’ may or may not follow him after he had relocated to New York.
Outside of that introspective, personal aspect, as well as the unnerving tension from the streets that occasionally takes over, the things that make Hiding Places just an absolutely essential listen is Woods confidence and command of the microphone, as well as the lengthy list of cultural asides and references that he works into his lyrics with a seemingly effortless fashion. I can’t think of another rapper smart enough to include mentions of Glengarry, Glenn Ross, Great Expectations, and a skit from Enter The 36 Chambers, among other things, in their music, but Woods goes for it, and rarely, if ever, fails to connect.
Musically, Kenny Segal’s arranging and production on Hiding Places is as impressive and as unrelenting as Woods’ lyrical contributions. At times relying on live instrumentation—the use of guitar on both “spongebob” and “checkpoints,” as well as explosive live percussion on the latter, gives the album an energetic and organic feeling that seamlessly blends with the more traditional synthetic beat construction. And throughout, he creates atmospheres that serve as the perfect underscore to Woods’ cadence, like the hazy, swooning, distended guitar loops on “spider hole,” the bittersweet synthesizer twinkles on “a day in a week in a year,” which is one of the album’s standout moments, the haunting cacophony of “toothy,” the avant-garde jazz tones from “speak gently”’s incredible second half, or the bone shattering, stuttering crunches of “bigfakelaugh.”
The album’s crowning achievement happens to also be its final track, “red dust.” Rarely does rap music ever create such an emotional pull on its listener, but within the combination of a dusty, hypnotic acoustic guitar loop, distorted percussion, and Woods’ own unrelenting, desperate, borderline manic delivery of his unflinching lyrics–Woods and Segal wrap their collective hands around your throat, and the grip never ceases until the song is over. Hell, even then, the grip of this thing is still very, very tight.
The album, in a sense, comes full circle on “red dust,” the cyclical nature of things within his lyrics, though, is, as a user on Genius states, a very ‘woodsian’ idea. “I was in the ceiling when they swept the building,” he states, “I broke bred with killas and rapists—I got money with ni**as you should not leave with a child for two fuckin’ seconds.” It’s chilling, and he barely gives you any recovery time before, “Don’t tell me that’s the past—I live in the past, it ain’t even that different.”
“red dust”’s second verse is enough to stop you in your tracks and knock the wind out of you completely—“I want to show you what I learned from the worst people I ever known,” Woods states, as he becomes so wrapped up that in his delivery that he almost, almost lets the music get away from him, as he races toward the unforgettable final line: “Seeing you in hell—all I think about. They say ‘woods, that’s all she wrote.’ I know the list long—I put you at the fuckin’ top.”
The music criticism website Stereogum recently ran a piece about Hiding Places where the writer, Tom Breihan, built the entire conceit of his review around the erroneous belief that the automated voice coming on at the end of “spongebob,” reading off an account balance of roughly $10, is from someone dialing in to check in on their personal bank account. The review then sidesteps a bulk of the album’s other themes or concepts, and focuses more on the claim that ‘Hiding Places is an album about being black and being broke in America.’
This isn’t wrong, per se, but Hiding Places is also about so much more than that—which is why it’s such an urgent and important record for both Woods’ career, as well as for right now—this very moment we’re all stuck living in. Yes it’s about being poor, and struggling, but it’s also about never being able to really outrun your past, and at times, turning around and attempting to embrace it; it’s about reveling in the mistakes you’ve made; and it’s about turning inward, and accepting, as you are able, the darkness you’ll find inside—and more importantly, learning how to live with that.
Rarely does Hiding Places falter, and when it does, it still works. And when it really works, which is most of the time, god damn this album is something to behold—Billy Woods and Kenny Segal put the human condition on display, setting it to music that is both gritty and gorgeous, creating something that is clever, compelling and brutally honest; an unrelenting, unforgettable experience that, at times, needs to be heard to be believed.
Hiding Places is out now as a digital download, CD, cassette, and LP, via Woods' own Backwoodz Studioz label.