Album Review: Billy Woods - Terror Management
The outlook found on nearly every album from Billy Woods could accurately be described as ‘incredibly bleak.’
Even before he released the jaw dropping, visceral, and stark Hiding Places earlier this year, produced entirely by Kenny Segal, and even before last year’s dizzying, cacophonic, and dark Paraffin—the third full length from Armand Hammer, Woods’ project with rapper and producer Elucid—there has always been a long, ominous shadow looming over his output.
Terror Management, a blistering, unnerving new collection of 18 tracks, is no different.
My wife recently joked that she and I are ‘the 1%’ simply because we pay to have three different streaming services—Netflix, Hulu, and Showtime. The latter is my choice, simply because I want to watch “Desus & Mero” and am willing to spend $11 a month or whatever on it.
“Desus & Mero” returned recently from an extended hiatus, and one of their first guests since coming back this fall was writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, out on the promotional trail of his just released novel The Water Dancer.
During his interview on the show, Coates discussed how hip-hop—specifically very lyrically heavy hip-hop—has influenced his work.
“These are some of the greatest writers that we’ve got—period,” he exclaims, emphatically, before citing both Black Thought from The Roots and Nasir Jones as examples.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? The worlds of music and literature are so compartmentalized that rarely, if ever, do people look at songwriters the same way they look at a novelist, or an essayist. And even if the zeitgeist lauds a songwriter for the way they work with words—it’s people like Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? That culture, as a whole, is so dismissive of the thoughtful and clever power that is deeply embedded into hip-hop.
Before anything else—before calling him a rapper, or a producer, I would call Billy Woods a writer, and one hell of a storyteller. Because that’s what he does—within the unrelenting, at times frenetic and desperate delivery of his rhymes, are stories; stories that blur the line between fact and fiction; and most importantly, stories that take you from wherever you are while you are listening to his music, and they place you within the images created by those words.
Very few rap artists working today have the gift that Woods has, and that’s the ability to conjure and evoke—and while musically, Terror Management lacks the overall cohesion in sound that Hiding Places had because it was a co-billed collaboration with one, and only one, producer, Woods’ uncanny, effortless ability to turn a phrase and take you with him into those moments more than makes up for the at times scattered, and disjointed production that runs throughout.
I stop short of saying that Terror Management, much like a lot of other, very recent rap releases, falls into the category of ‘sound collage,’ but structurally, it has little in common with what you may think of when you think of a traditional rap record—across the album’s sprawling 18 tracks (though relatively short running time of 42 minutes), the longest song included is just under four minutes; the shortest is just over a minute; and it’s built, much like previous Woods record (Today, I Wrote Nothing comes to mind) around incredibly tight, concise bursts that never feel unfinished by the time they reach a conclusion, as well as myriad, disembodied samples of dialog, usually placed near the end of a song.
After short intro from an a piece of dialog spoken by Kurt Vonnegut, there’s an awful sense of foreboding that descends onto the album, as Woods repeats the unsettling expression, “World getting warmer—we’re going the other way,” on the album’s opening track, “Marlow.” And it’s within the first song that you get a sense for just how intelligent and how literate of a writer Woods is. On Hiding Places, among other things, he references Great Expectations and Glengarry Glen Ross; on “Marlow,” he spends the final lines of the song talking about Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”
Literary flexes like this, sure, are impressive to drop into your lyrics, but as the kind of listener who always wants to know more, by doing this Woods, perhaps inadvertently, encourages you to investigate references or source material you may not be familiar with—the title of his album Today, I Wrote Nothing comes from a collection of writing of the same name from Russian writer Daniil Kharms; here, on Terror Management, Woods references poet Jack Gillbert on more than one occasion.
Similarly to the tone Woods helps set on Paraffin, there is a very noticeable sense of immediacy and urgency running throughout Terror Management—it’s in the way he, very deliberately, delivers his lyrics; it’s in the way he emphasizes specific words or lines, and it’s in the way that he is able to convey a breathless, unrelenting feeling of borderline desperation at times—these thoughts and these words need to get out there, and no one, save for Woods himself, understands just how serious it is that he does this.
“Catch-22, Catch-22—when I laugh, miss you worse,” he barks over the on the beginning of “Great Fires.” Then, later on in the song’s second verse, “It was fine till everybody left—but it was terrible for they did, like holding your breath…I remember how she waited for me to say it; breath bated, we was on the phone—I wish I could have waited inside that moment forever.” And this is just one example out of an almost innumerable amount where Woods is able to do more than just make you hear these lyrics—he pulls you into this scene with him.
It’s also on “Great Fires” where Woods creates a near mantra with the song’s refrain—“Even good news feel bad. I drink drinks too fast; I paid cash.”
Before this, on “Gas Leak,” he creates one of the bleakest images on the record—“No Christmas this Christmas—kitchen frigid, space heater in the room, Chinese delivered,” all before conjuring terribly evocative, marginally ambiguous, and emotional imagery: “I am an isthmus; my arm's length is quite the distance; once distant future now day-to-day existence; my ex wife is my mistress,” an idea that shows up more than once on Terror Management, and is mentioned at least once on Hiding Places.
Musically, Terror Management from beginning to end is kaleidoscopic, dizzying, and restless. Because Woods has worked with a number of producers on the record, it never settles—or really, refuses to settle, into a specific, cohesive sound; at times, it can be the record’s fatal flaw, creating a disjointed, loose environment—other times, it lends itself well to the overall sense of unresolvable, unnerving tension stretched across every single one of these tracks.
There are beats that are slightly more successful in their execution compared to others, and when one of them works, it really works—the smoothed out groove of “Western Education is Forbidden” provides a surprising juxtaposition against Woods’ stark lyrical portraits; the unsettling stutter and slink of “Blood Thinner” lays the ground for a haunted atmosphere where Woods, not as a lyricist but as a performer, thrives with his animated delivery; and the chaotic, abrasive dissonance in the double shot of “Dead Birds” and “Gas Leak” creates a cacophonic peak as Terror Management hits the halfway mark.
Woods’ lyrics, and his confidence and intelligence as a rapper are without a doubt what makes the album work, even when it gets weigh down aesthetically; however, it’s also the usage of dusty, at times mysterious snippets of dialog that find their way into the conclusion of a number of tracks—the one that stands out the most, perhaps because it is a dialog between two people, is the sample included at the end of “Birdsong.”
Or, perhaps it stands out because it takes up nearly half of the song’s three minute running time; it’s a fascinating, intense back and forth between a man and a woman, presumably husband and wife, about the idea of dreams, and authenticity.
“You got to fake it. Because we don't have dreams these days. How the hell can you have a dream, for what? So, so everybody's jiving. Well let's jive on that level,” the woman tells this man.
“If I love you, I can’t lie to you,” the man retorts.
The conversation ends with an exchange about the man’s temperament with his white boss at work—and how his temperament shifts once he returns home.
“I've caught the frowns and the anger. He's happy with you. Of course he doesn't know you're unhappy. You grin at him all day long. You come home and I catch hell, because I love you. I get least of you. I get, I get the very minimum. And I'm sayin', you know, fake it with me,” she asks him in the end, before the song ends with the repetition of one line—“Just the age for heartbreak.”
The inclusion of these samples, usually found at the end of one song as it careens into the next, seems to be in effort to compliment, or amplify, something from the song itself—a specific image or an idea. In the case of the shadowy, and more than likely very personal “Corn Starch,” the decision to end the song with a bit of condescending dialog taken the 1974 Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation, provides a connection to an almost seemingly throw away line that arrived shortly before the song ends—“Down the road, seen him lookin' bummy outside the liquor store—Hurried past like I ain’t know him, somethin' caught in my throat.”
Much like its predecessor, Hiding Places, released only, like, seven or eight months ago, Terror Management is a difficult listen—though with enough time, it reveals itself to be a rewarding and complex one as well. And much like its predecessor, it leaves the listener with no easy answers, and possibly with more questions. Rap music doesn’t need to be, or have to be challenging, but as a genre, it becomes more interesting when the performer wants to be difficult or challenging—and pushes the boundaries of the genre to dark, confrontational, realistic, and at times, very depressing places.
Terror Management ends with “Stranger in The Village,” an unrelenting two minutes, musically steeped in minor psychedelia, where Woods, at the beginning of the song, announces that it’s his ‘European Vacation,’ before rattling off a sprawling verse that references an obscure, unpublished book called Barracoon: The Story of The Last ‘Black Cargo,’ and ends the track by saying, “Everything for sale except the scale—that’s coming with me,” and possibly one of the darkest phrases on the entire record, “You can’t pay with money—I know what’s coming.”
The outlook found on nearly every album from Billy Woods could accurately be described as ‘incredibly bleak,’ and while Terror Management ends in a less unsettling way when compared to the final, visceral moments of “Red Dust,” the breathless closing track on Hiding Places, it still leaves the listener with holding onto something very heavy to unpack, standing in a dark place, with little, if any, light to find a way out.
And Billy Woods, as a performer, and a writer, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Terror Management is out now as a digital download, CD, and cassette, from Backwoodz Studioz. The vinyl edition of the album is now sold out.