Album Review: billy woods ‘Dour Candy’
Upon first hearing billy woods’ new album Dour Candy I thought it was the most accessible album that he had released in his 10+ years as an MC (part as a solo artist and part as half of the now defunct Super Chron Flight Brothers). Subsequent listens have proven that while accessible may be the wrong word for any album from billy woods, Blockhead’s stellar front to back production gives the album a consistent swing and polish that contrasts with the abrasive, experimental production that billy usually rocks over. This carries over to the lyrics, where the encyclopedic scope of international and historical topics found on his 2012 album History Will Absolve Me is shrunk down into a graphic novel of an album that details what it means to be billy woods in 2013.
While billy’s range of topics on Dour Candy might seem much smaller in scope, his choppy, reference-filled flow is as robust and intricate as ever. Almost every song on Dour Candy has either a word (panopticon, daguerreotype, slattern, epaulettes) or a name (Rafael Trujillo, Scheherazade, P.W. Botha, Marachera) that you’ll likely have to Google to understand the meaning or the context of its use. This type of obscure reference overload is a hallmark of his work. The more references you get (which also include sports, movies, TV, classic hip hop, literature, and weed) the more brilliant billy’s lyrics become. This might be intimidating for newer listeners, but his make-every-line-count style is custom built for repeat listens that lead to eureka moments months, or even years, after first listening.
The two themes found most throughout Dour Candy focus on dealing with and moving on from a long term relationship, and scraping by to make a living (both through selling weed and trying to become successful as a musician). “Gilgamesh” illustrates both themes as woods uses the first verse to tell a story of his ex coming back into town and stopping by only to tell him she was getting married. Woods gets the last laugh though- “came through on her wedding night, groom peeping through the keyhole/ tears in his eyes, lights off mijo/ All you heard was rattling medals, she left disheveled/ Merrily dug his own grave whistling as he shoveled”. The 2nd verse finds billy retreating to his hustle “feet up on the Ottoman Empire/ a two block radius at best, but the peasants still call him sire/ hold his marijuana and shoot when he says fire”.
The narrative from “Poachers” runs along the same lines. Woods raps “I’m on the third floor fire escape balcony seats, the roach burns discreet/ blue and red stage- lighting the street” detailing his perspective while his neighbor gets arrested for selling weed. With the neighbor out of the picture, woods is there to “spoil your daughter, court your spouse/ do little repairs around the house” (hence the title) before losing the relationship in the end. Woods has always had great, realistic songs that revolved around dealing drugs, but the vivid pictures he paints on songs like “Gilgamesh” and “Poachers” have an extremely authentic feel about them that seems to blur the line between fiction and reality.
The relationship theme continues through songs like “Tumbleweed” and “Fool’s Gold.” “Tumbleweed” features ruminations from billy and Aesop Rock about moving on from relationships and trying to embrace the single life over some head-nodding, percussive rhythms supplied by Aesop’s old friend Blockhead. Woods excellent verse on the posse cut “Fool’s Gold” featuring Open Mike Eagle, Moka Only, and Elucid tells the tale of a man waiting at a Courtyard by Marriott for his regular hooker in “the same room as our first date” willing to risk his marriage for ‘fool’s gold’. The guest MC’s all offer similar tales of times they got their hopes up for something (Open Mike’s verse about a DOOM-poster show is particularly great).
“The Undercard” and “Hack” both further detail the struggle to survive as a drug dealer/rapper and the internal conflict that is created as a result. On the opener “The Undercard” woods takes us through picking up a re-up and performing at a show the same night and all the emotions that go with leading a double life, each side with risks and rewards. “Hack” finds billy feeling old and bitter, both with the “pick up, drop off, pick up, drop” lifestyle as a drug dealer and with the modern mechanics of the music industry: “woods, you need a new free project every month and a half, and moving forward the publicist only accepts cash.” Billy woods’ bitterness towards the world around him has always been evident, but on Dour Candy he also sounds more self-deprecating than ever.
While the relationship and drug dealer/rapper themes are prominent throughout the album, Dour Candy ends with a trio of politically minded songs that would sound right at home on History Will Absolve Me. “Pro Wrestling” cleverly compares cheating, script following pro wrestlers to politicians and features several perfect vocal snippets, including this closing gem from Ric Flair. “Lucre” certainly isn’t the first song that billy woods has dwelled on the merit, or lack thereof, of religious ideology, but its bluntly stated chorus:
“They say god remakes the world every day/ But the amount of good and evil, he never change/ It’s said that you pay for what you do/ But to see bad men buried with honor is nothing new/ I often hear hard work is its own reward/ and that the world is promised to the meek and the poor/ I take that like a kiss from a whore”
Dour Candy’s closer “Cuito Cuanavale” takes its name from a battle in the Angolan civil war in which the Angolan army was helped to victory by Cuban reinforcements. It features a chilling beat from Blockhead and another great chorus from woods (“They want it one way, but it’s another…”) that helps explain why power and restlessness are so closely tied. “Cuito Cuanavale” serves as yet another enthralling chapter in a book of politically charged songs centered on recent African history that only billy woods could write.
While Dour Candy is most definitely a billy woods album through and through, I would be remiss if I didn’t give Blockhead a little more credit for his efforts. Fresh off producing one of the most well produced albums of 2013 (Illogic’s Capture The Sun) just a couple months ago, Blockhead is reestablishing himself as one of the best producers in the game. “Tinseltown” and “Central Park” stand out in particular as two of the best beats on the album and have quickly become two of my all-time favorite billy woods songs. The jingling, mystical atmosphere on “Tinseltown” blends with some rugged drums and guitars to give woods the perfect canvas to paint a picture of his up to date mentality. Blockhead’s bouncy, almost DJ Premier-esque beat for “Central Park” is classic hip hop production at its finest and far removed from the progressive style of beats that woods raps over most of the time. It’s downright refreshing to hear him rap on the bright, warm production featured on “Central Park”. Billy woods has always had a great ear for beats, but I hope he continues to seek out this kind of catchy, upbeat production that serves as a great contrast from his usual production palate.
For most musicians, it would seem like an impossible task to try to follow up a defining album like History Will Absolve Me, but at this point billy doesn’t seem capable of making an album that’s not great. His never-dumbed-down, uncompromising style might never give him the recognition he truly deserves from the masses, but with each successive classic album he releases, he nets a new batch of lifelong fans. If you haven’t fully jumped on board, now would be a perfect time to do so. Cop the limited-to-300 colored vinyl over at Backwoodz Studioz.
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Written by John Bugbee