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billy woods and Kenny Segal Are a Match Made in Songwriting Heaven

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New York rapper billy woods teamed up with producer Kenny Segal for their second full-length collaboration “Maps.” Released on May 5, “Maps” is a surreal concept album about traveling and tour life with an excellent array of features, including Aesop Rock, Danny Brown and Quelle Chris. Pushing an already-stunning discography into new terrain while maintaining his piercing rhymes and idiosyncratic metaphorical style, “Maps” unequivocally establishes woods as one of the greatest lyricists of our generation.

woods has garnered a cult following in recent years, thanks to an extended run of incredible records. This includes his 2022 album “Aethiopes,” a complex portrait of the constructed fictions and lived realities of the African diaspora, densely packed with historical references and detailed imagery rapped over atmospheric samples, such as Ethiopian jazz in the opening track “Asylum.” woods spent his childhood in Africa due to his father’s participation in the Zimbabwe War of Liberation, so certain elements of its depictions are drawn from his own experience.

woods previously collaborated with Segal on their 2019 album “Hiding Places,” a tense, haunting exploration of his fears and irritations. But woods’ imagery and Segal’s sampling convey a very different mood on their new record, swapping out cramped, shadowy crawlspaces for endless, sunlit expanses.

As a result of his success, woods has found himself on tour for the first time in his decades-long career. In spite of this, he still wishes to retain the anonymity he had when he was completely unknown — woods has never revealed his government name and always requires his face to be blurred in photographs. Somewhat incredibly, most of his concert attendees have respected this wish. 

Rather than immersing listeners in the distant places he’s reached while traveling the world, woods focuses on the liminal spaces in between. Planes, airports and concert venues are the album’s primary settings.

woods’ rhymes frequently blend meditations on his own experiences, whether it be his divorce or the deaths of his loved ones, with references to various historical and cultural events. His personal and social worlds become one and the same. A perfect example can be found in the transition from chorus to verse in the song “Red Dust” on “Hiding Places”: “It’s not the act, it’s the touch / It’s how she arch her back when she- / Knock the plane out the sky / Spark the genocide.” In suddenly shifting the narrative to the 1994 assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, woods draws a parallel between sexual and violent drives. 

It’s clear that woods doesn’t make music intended for a pleasant listening experience. Though considerably softer and sunnier than all of woods’ previous albums, “Maps” is still filled with that familiar bitterness and sense of dread. 

In the song “Facetime,” woods raps wistfully about a failing long distance relationship over a sparkling beat: “Watching unbroken wild ponies run wild at sundown / Only the lonely big tree like a sundial.”

Segal’s production perfectly complements the tone of woods’ lyrics. His samples are wonderfully textured, shifting from smooth jazz to distorted, foreboding beats in the record’s middle stretch, more fitting for the billy woods that fans are used to. 

Of course, this is where Danny Brown comes in, delivering some trademark over-the-top aggressive bars on the track “Year Zero,” including a delightful MF DOOM reference: “Danny Brown back like skinny white girls / Workin’ out, ’bout to get the money like curls.”

woods is a masterful storyteller with a remarkable talent for painting the little details of life. The misfortunes conveyed through letters and voicemails, the bass from a party in the halls trembling the walls of his Brooklyn apartment, the happiness he waits for by the window “like Malcolm X” — woods remarks on it all with the grim, humorous sarcasm of a man who has spent a lifetime just barely getting by. But he finds relief in the joys of weed and food: “The nose is Pine-Sol and turpentine / But the taste remind me of Jamaican oranges that look like limes,” he raps on “Houdini.” “Maps” is filled with these beautiful sensory details.

“One sip of New York City tapwater, I’m back dialed in,” woods says gently at the beginning of “NYC Tapwater,” the album’s mellow penultimate track marking the conclusion of his travels. As he describes the city over a gorgeous, tender instrumental, it’s like we’re right there with him. It’s a dreamy ode to his home, but he closes the song by unveiling the city’s harsh reality, warning a boy about the omnipresence and ruthlessness of the New York Police Department.

On the closing track “As the Crow Flies,” woods reflects on fatherhood and mortality in a simple yet striking verse. “Tear-streaked apologies, balled fists, it’s a trip / That this is something we did,” he says to the child’s mother. “I watch him grow, wondering how long I got to live.”

Though utterly despondent as ever, woods seems to be facing the future head-on. “Already knew the options was lose/lose / Baby, that’s nothing new,” woods raps on “The Layover.” “That just make it easier to choose, it’s up to you.” What uncharted territories will he take his music to next?

Fei Yang is an Arts and Entertainment Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. She can be reached at feiy11@uci.edu