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
The fact that Serengeti is still releasing music as his wildly inventive alter ego, Kenny Dennis, years after his original Kenny Dennis project Dennehy dropped is an achievement. But when you realize he’s more committed to the Kenny Dennis narrative than ever before, his creative brilliance really begins to reveal itself on his new Kenny Dennis LP. Geti goes fully down the KD rabbit hole, adding a new character in Workaholics’ Anders Holm who pops up on 4 excellent skits and adds a few wrinkles to the KD mythology. Although this album sounds nothing like Serengeti’s emotional album of the year contender Saal, they share a creative spirit that makes them hard to put in a box. In both cases, they feel like work Serengeti has been building towards.
A narrative centered on an appearance by Kenny Dennis on American Gladiators back in the day (Kenny’s 53 now) is a central theme on the LP. On “Crush Em” Kenny raps about how he crushed Nitro into the wall in Powerball on American Gladiators. Later, on “Kenny and Jueles” he describes returning home to the silent treatment from his wife Jueles after winning the Eliminator on American Gladiators and even turning down an opportunity to become a gladiator (“that’s called love and devotion and sacrifice”). Jueles explains that she was so proud of his exploits that she couldn’t speak, and then the couple makes up. The song is another great chapter in the Kenny and Jueles story that started back on Dennehy.
The four skits featuring ‘Ders are key to the album as well. ‘Ders takes us through first meeting Kenny at a Sharper Image as a kid, to becoming Kenny’s biggest fan when Kenny was a member of Tha Grimm Teachaz, to flying Kenny out to LA for Kenny’s 50th birthday after his Workaholics success. The last skit “50th Birthday” ends badly when, after hanging in LA for a while, Kenny is introduced to ‘Ders’s friend Steve. After finding out Kenny rapped, Steve made the mistake of asking Kenny if he learned to rap from ‘Ders and his TV friends rap group ‘The Wizards.’ This insult, coupled with the fact Steve was wearing a Shaq O’Neal jersey (Kenny’s mortal enemy), was enough to make Kenny abruptly leave his birthday dinner at Ruth’s Chris and not speak to ‘Ders for years. All these details might seem absurd in the context of a rap album, but that’s why any comparisons you choose to make for Serengeti albums fall flat. At this point in his career Serengeti is like a director with amazing stories to tell who absolutely refuses to compromise his vision in the slightest in order to give casual viewers a chance to catch up.
Serengeti has also used the last couple of Kenny Dennis albums to show off his ability to riff on early 90 rap styles (which matches perfectly with Kenny’s back story as a member of Tha Grimm Teachaz). The opening track “Bang Em” features a classic boom-bap beat from Odd Nosdam and Kenny’s throwback choppy, stream of consciousness flow (“Miles, Davis/ Potatoes, Carrots/ Eyes strengthen/ O’Neal retired, Kenny drinkin’”). Little touches like Kenny riffing at the end of the track about the life metaphor that the phrase ‘bang em‘ implies are gold, and the crux of the appeal of the Kenny Dennis albums. It’s not really comedy rap, because if you’re a Kenny Dennis newbie listening for the first time, you’re probably more confused than amused. But if you’ve followed the storyline, it’s the heart and quirky detail that Serengeti injects into Kenny’s character that makes these albums hilarious even when Kenny is angry or playing it straight.
The closing track “Flows” starts with Kenny stating “I gotta get serious” and the song is indeed Kenny’s attempt to drop some jewels on his listeners. Kenny’s basic messages are to think before acting, to be hospitable, and help each other. He seems confounded that people don’t do these things, even showing disgust that the mayor doesn’t get the snow plowed so buses can get the kids to school. Everything is simple in the world of Kenny Dennis and while it’s easy to laugh at, it’s this moral backbone Geti provides Kenny that keeps him grounded and helps make him relatable. “Directions” is another attempt by Kenny to offer guidance (he literally gives directions for the entire 2nd half of the song) and “Punks” finds KD venting by rambling on about different ‘punks’ that he encounters daily over Odd Nosdam’s bluesy, infectious beat.
Just when you think Serengeti has stretched the Kenny Dennis character to the limit, he adds layers of depth you never thought would be possible in a fictional O’Douls-swigging, Craig Hodges-loving, brat-eating throwback rapper. Serengeti’s boundary shattering approach to making music may never make him a household name, but his artistic range is astounding and makes him one of the modern music scene’s best kept secrets. There’s no telling if he’ll be able to keep up his recent pace of releasing a couple Serengeti projects and one Kenny Dennis project every year, but it’s already one of the most consistently good runs of rap releases by one artist in the last several years. Pick up the Kenny Dennis LP on Vinyl/CD over at Anticon and get up to speed on one of rap music’s best alter egos.
Written by John Bugbee
New York MC Homeboy Sandman had one of my favorite albums of 2012 in First of a Living Breed. It was his first full length album on LA’s famed hip hop imprint Stones Throw Records, following two outstanding EPs (Subject Matter and Chimera) that were also released on Stones Throw in 2012. Sandman’s forging a similar path in 2013 with his initial release, Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent, also coming in the form of an EP.
Fertile Crescent was released digitally a couple months ago, so it’s not technically a new release, but I decided to hold off on reviewing it until it got a proper vinyl release this month. After listening to Fertile Crescent for the past couple of months, I can definitively say that is his most consistent release and my favorite Homeboy Sandman project. That’s saying a lot considering the numerous projects he has released in the last five years, but it’s not surprising considering his ability to constantly improve and reinvent himself.
In terms of rapping chops, Sandman has been one of the best MC’s on the planet ever since his first album dropped back in ’08. His writing, flow, wordplay, and creativity have been consistently excellent on each and every project he’s released. Conversely, his advanced writing and ability to tackle topics that other MC’s wouldn’t touch have limited the cohesiveness of past works. You always know you’re going to hear a few songs on a Sandman album that are utterly unique, but this uniqueness (both in his beat selection and songwriting) sometimes makes his albums tough to listen to straight through.
That is not the case on this EP, and it is largely due to the excellent front to back production provided by EL RTNC. EL RTNC has made a handful of beats for Homeboy Sandman over the last couple years and while he may not be a household name at this point, I predict he won’t be staying anonymous for long. All of the beats seem to draw from a 70’s rock/soul template and feel connected, but they never run together. This is helped by the fact that EL RTNC adds short intro and outro beats and samples throughout the EP that raise the level of musicality and cohesiveness.
“Peace & Love” stands out with some of the best songwriting you’ll find on a rap song in 2013. His verse about how easily strong relationships can crumble alternates with a great vocal sample and Sandman builds on the verse with every pass through, giving the verse a chorus-like feel and helping to burn it into your memory. Homeboy Sandman has always been more adventurous with his song structures than the average rapper, but it’s these types of songs that really put him at the forefront of the genre as a songwriter.
It’s hard to single out any other songs on an EP that’s so consistently good, but Homeboy Sandman’s creativity shines through on every song. He breaks down stereotypes he faces daily and sings in Spanish on “Oh, The Horror,” shows off his acrobatic, wordplay driven flow on “Dag, Philly Too” and “Men Are Mortal”, and details the dangers of dating someone and hoping they’ll change on “Moon.” Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent is the best EP I’ve heard this year and a tremendous start to what should be another great year for Homeboy Sandman. He recently released another excellent single, “Give You The World” and has a full length project scheduled to drop later this year. Pick up the vinyl for Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent for only 9.99 over at Stones Throw and get an instant digital download.
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Written by John Bugbee