Album Review: Billy Woods – History Will Absolve Me

Posted: April 10, 2012 in Album Review, Best of 2nd Q 2012, Hip Hop
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“Duck Hunt” – Billy Woods (produced by A.M. Breakups)

The rise of Company Flow and Black Star to prominence on the independent rap scene in New York City in the late nineties gave birth and hope to literally thousands of new artists over the years to come.  From direct relatives like the Def Jux labelmates to other small imprints like Brick Records, Landspeed, and Embedded and on and on a cottage industry of small independent rap labels cropped up, with emcees and producers embracing the dusty-but-digital aesthetic.  The term “abstract” in rap mushroom clouded from Q-Tip to Aesop Rock.  As this movement coincided with the widespread rise of the internet the independent market flooded with DIY artists who watered down this aesthetic with cheap bedroom studio knockoffs and imitations.  As quickly as young hip hop fans flocked to this new aesthetic on the heels of Funcrusher Plus, Cold Vein, and Labor Days, they ran from it as the “nerd rap” moniker and all that came with it threatened their self-esteem.

Billy Woods began to slowly garner a following back in 2002 and 2003 with the release of his first albums, Camouflage, which featured Cannibal Ox’s Vordul Megallah on a third of the tracks, and Chalice, but at the time these limited pressings were lost amidst the slew of Def Jukies and relatives/offshoots like the artists who recorded for the Embedded and Johnny23 imprints.  A lack of promotion, unpolished production, and a crowded market consealed Billy Woods’s talent to a degree, though in hindsight it was clearly there.  It didn’t help that he came out amidst the dawn of the aforementioned anti-nerd rap backlash.  As the market was flooding with artists possessing similar sensibilities, New York mainstream acts like Dipset and Ghostface Killah offered a more polished and accessible alternative for fans who wished to revel in humorous references and abstraction without facing the stigma of being a “nerd rap” fan.  Nevermind that the always diminutive descriptor never really fit Woods (or a slew of other talented artists from that era).  Sure Billy Woods creates cerebral hip hop, and has a flow that’s probably more influenced by Chuck D and great political orators than it is by Nas or Jay-Z, but that doesn’t mean that the music he creates is anything other than hardcore rap music.

Fast forwarding to 2012, much has changed in the way in which society consumes music.  Few artists, and fewer labels, value the long-form of the album, and even fewer still believe in the value of maintaining the continuity of their product by limiting the amount of leaks and teasers or creating a cohesive product.  So much hip hop is released a single at a time from twitter to the blogosphere that itunes playlist creation has become the preferred method of consumption for most many, if not most, listeners.  Billy Woods has come a long way as an artist as well.  His work with Priveledge (Edge), as the Super Chron Flight Brothers, was critically acclaimed and he’s managed to slowly cultivate a fan base with his intelligent cultural critique and analysis, participating in many quality projects blending style and substance.  Super Chron also managed to help keep many of the all-stars from late 90’s and early 00’s hip hop music alive, as fan favorites like Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire and Vordul, Masai Bey, MF Doom, and Trife Da God all showed up on Super Chron releases despite being mostly M.I.A. for years at a time.

History Will Absolve Me is not some “I’ve read four chapters of Howard Zinn and now I’m pissed off at America record.”  Woods is well-read and has global roots, hailing from a combination of Zimbabwe, Brooklyn, Jamaica, and DC. There was always an element of humor and satire in the work of Super Chron, and it shows up occasionally here, like on the hook to”Pump Up the Volume” and in occasional lines throughout the album, but this is a more serious Billy Woods, much more severe and caustic in his critiques and analyses.  The production fittingly is rougher, harder, and darker – hardcore rap music delivered with an encyclopedia knowledge of global history and the delicate sanity of a war refugee.

The album’s title, History Will Absolve Me, or “La historia me absolverá” is a reference to Fidel Castro’s famous speech in defense of himself and the army of roughly 100 others who assaulted the Moncada Barracks in Cuba, during the repressive Cuban regime of Fulgencio Bautista in 1953.  This famous speech, which reportedly lasted four hours and was smuggled out of prison in matchboxes, was a defining moment in Fidel’s political uprising against Bautista.  This phrase becomes a thematic motif that appears throughout the album: at its core is the notion that an attack against injustice is just, or at the very least will come to be understood that way.  But be careful in reading the theme that simplistically as the concepts and lyrics of Billy Woods are rarely that straightforward.

It’s also interesting to consider how the phrase History Will Absolve Me relates to often fickle fans of more cerebral hip hop records (and hip hop in general).  While musical movements come and go, are responded to, regress, and re-emerge, ultimately it is quality music which stands the test of time and leaves its stamp on history.  This notion is echoed in Woods harsh criticism of “flavor of the week” rappers as well as the complexity of modern internet piracy.  Normally when an artist spends a full song addressing the state of the music industry it is an unneeded distraction, something better left to a mixtape or a throwaway than a legitimate album track.  While “DMCA” and “Duck Hunt” would stick out a bit from the content of of most albums, they fit neatly into the socio-political criticism Woods is authoring throughout History Will Absolve Me, and as with anything, when he attacks the topic full boar, the results are jarringly effective.  On “DMCA” lines like, “Obama robbed Peter just to pay Paul – I can dig that / symmetrical like stick-up kids getting jacked,” and “we only here ’cause some crackers ain’t wanna pay tax / on their Earl Grey, but see nothing wrong with owning slaves / so fuck a sample I ain’t gotsta pay / when I take your shit, that’s the American Way” fit one of the album’s recurring themes, which is the tenuous nature of ownership and the justification of otherwise inexcusable actions in the name of one’s own perception of righteousness.

Returning to the title ofHistory Will Absolve Me, one more theme to explore within the album is the fact that despite capturing the popular imagination of the Cuban people at the time, millions now view Castro as an oppressive dictator and history (at least as controlled by the American media) has not be as kind to his legacy.  This album spends a lot of time alluding to dictatorships, oppressive regimes, upheaval, violent imperialism, and the futility of revolution.  Unlike most emcees who cover these topics, Billy Woods has a truly global perspective on issues, looking at issues through multiple lenses.

For all the leaps that Billy Woods has made as an emcee over the last decade, his production team has improved just as much.  Willie Green, AM Breakups, Man Mantis, Marmaduke, and NASA all put an indelible stamp on this album, driving the songs with frenetic sample based beats, hard drums, and oddball noises galore.  While Woods holds it down on the mic, it doesn’t hurt that he brings in the likes of Roc Marciano, Masai Bey, Elucid, and L’Wren to offer some equally captivating verses and add welcome diversity in vocal tone and song structure.

To state it lightly, this is not a put it on and nod your head, or curl up with your boo, album.  This is an album for listeners who wish to be active, and aren’t put off by the notion of listening to records again and again, or googling some messed up historical figures and quotes along the way to contextualize verses and songs.  Woods’ lyrics are not obscure or esoteric, but this is an album to be read and re-read for interpretations like a good piece of historical fiction.  It will take time for the listener to soak in all of the circling motifs as well as the purpose behind individual verses and songs.  Examining the depth of expression and effort Woods put into this album, it is easy to understand the disdain Woods expresses toward disposable art.  Clearly to Woods, an album is something to be crafted and polished over a period of time, molded within a well developed conceptual framework.  In this case, a framework rife with international socio-political fury.  For those listeners who crave albums that become more illuminating with each subsequent listen, this and Ka’s Grief Pedigree are clearly the album of the year candidates to date.

Body of Work” Billy Woods featuring Masai Bey & Roc Marciano (produced by Willie Green)

Frozen Sunlight” Billy Woods ft. Open Mike Eagle & MarQ Spekt (produced by Willie Green – non-album cut)

You can cop the album on Itunes, Amazon, or get an autographed copy with a t-shirt on

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