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.
Connect with billy woods via Facebook
Written by John Bugbee
Illogic and Blockhead seemed liked a natural fit as an MC/producer team from the time they announced they were working on an album a couple years ago. Blockhead needed an MC to work with after Aesop Rock became his own producer and Illogic was looking for a producer to help him craft another classic like he and Blueprint did with his 2004 album Celestial Clockwork. A few years after Illogic first reached out to Blockhead to work on a project, Capture The Sun is here, and it feels like an album from a MC/producer group that’s been together for years instead of a random rapper/beat-maker forced combo.
As an MC, Illogic has evolved over the years. Thought provoking, poetic word play has always been a calling card, but throughout Capture The Sun Illogic relies less on cleverness and more on sharing hard earned life wisdom and truths. “Capture The Sun” and “Beautiful Sunday” are back to back cuts that are probably more representative of the album than any other two individual songs. Neither is overtly religious, but both focus on the power of positive thinking and the importance of seizing the day. “Capture The Sun” was the first single and features Slug from Atmosphere on the hook. I previously featured its great video for Thought on Tracks. Blockhead incorporates a couple of great vocal samples (a levitating wail on “Capture The Sun” and a soul refrain on “Beatiful Sunday”) that really drive the songs and help to demonstrate the complex art behind his layered, sample based productions.
“Bridges” is less than two minutes long but it packs a serious punch. Illogic uses one verse to paint a vivid picture detailing his struggle with cancer as a youth, his ability to gain strength through becoming a husband and father, and finally his willingness to burn a bridge with ‘Fess’ (presumably former Greenhouse Effect member Manifest). Blockhead’s simple infectious beat must have really lit a fire under Illogic because his verse is probably the albums best, opening with the gem “Talk is cheap, but a whisper is priceless/ I choose to take a leap of faith no matter what the price is”.
Blockhead’s production is so varied at this point in his career that Capture The Sun doesn’t sound like it was produced by one person. His beat for “Justified” might be my favorite of the bunch because of the multitude of samples and shifts that the song utilizes while still maintaining a cool swing. Illogic and Blueprint trade verses about the role race and racism have on the way the police do their job in America and show why they always make such a great team. “Atlantis Depth” is another great contribution from Blockhead featuring some great jabbing guitar riffs and a creepy vocal sample that sounds like it’s coming from the depths. Blockhead’s judicious use of horns on “Atlantis Depth” and throughout the album complement Illogic’s vocals perfectly, they always seem to come in at the right time.
Capture The Sun ends on a high note with the album’s best song “Lighthouse.” Blockhead’s trippy, morphing beat sets the stage for Illogic to spit another of the albums best verses. Opening strong with- “Showered in blankets of two dimensional soothsayers/ today’s truth sayers are stick figured visionaries/ There’s a gaping hole in the basket we placed our eggs in/ This explains the constant eggshell walking”, Illogic uses the his verse to gaze outward at the world around him and ask “where will we draw the line to ensure that future generations aren’t ashamed of the legacies we leave?”. The song is capped off by a truly great appearance from singer/alternative hip hop Kristoff Kane that tails Illogic’s verse. I’d never heard of Kane before this release, but he’s made me an instant fan with his work on “Lighthouse.”
While the lead-up EP’s that Illogic and Blockhead released last year were recorded at the same time as the songs from Capture The Sun, all of the songs that made the album have a level of polished complexity not found on the EP’s. Capture The Sun is not a concept album, but Illogic’s spirituality is the bond that ties the sixteen tracks together. Illogic has always used religious imagery in his music, but he seems more confident and open with his spiritual side than ever before. Blockhead’s beats on the album sound like soul symphonies from the future. Already one of the one most consistently great beat makers around, Blockhead’s craftsmanship and attention to detail on every single song on Capture The Sun make it the best produced album I’ve heard in 2013. Go pick up the album up over at Man Bites Dog.
Written by John Bugbee
2012 was an absolutely stellar year for rap music no matter how you slice it. Seemingly out of nowhere the variety and talent within the genre exploded, and it didn’t seem to be specific to any particular sub-genre or geographic region. I usually tend to favor hip hop that comes out of the NYC area, and it’s no surprise that the area is well represented on my list. The first two albums I reviewed for Thought On Tracks were from Brooklyn MC’s Ka and billy woods. I considered them album of the year contenders when I wrote the reviews back in May and they ended up fighting off a ton of tough competition to hold down the top two spots on my list. Check out my full top ten hip hop albums below, I’ve linked reviews for the albums I reviewed and wrote a few words about the ones I didn’t get a chance to review.
1. billy woods – History Will Absolve Me
Woods’ masterwork History Will Absolve Me was my most anticipated album of 2012 and it more than delivered. It’s the type of album that will only gain importance as the years go by. Woods’ style, while unorthodox, is brimming with intelligence, dark humor, creativity, and above all, pen skills.
2. Ka – Grief Pedigree
Ka’s self-produced classic Grief Pedigree is an album rooted in hip hop’s past, but with a modern sound and devoid of any throwback sentiments. Ka’s attention to detail and dedication to his craft allowed him to overcome the limitations of his monotone flow in a big way and helped him create a perfect album.
3. Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City
What can I say about Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City that hasn’t already been said this year? I’m not sure, which is probably why I didn’t review it. Its greatness is astounding and self-explanatory. Astounding in that he actually made THAT thorough of concept album and a major label actually allowed him to release it, and self-explanatory in that Kendrick’s rapping skill is indisputable at this point. Lamar’s album was perhaps the most anticipated hip hop album of 2012 and it turned out to be far better than it had any right to be. The back to back combo of “The Art Of Peer Pressure” and “Money Trees” is probably my favorite song transition of the year.
Roc Marciano had a big 2012. Even though his stellar sequel to 2010’s underground classic Marcberg wasn’t released until November, his name seemed to be everywhere throughout the year as he released well over another album’s worth of material through guest appearances and loosies. Reloaded was worth the wait though, it feels like a love letter to the genre, an album for the heads who love rhymes. His verses jump out of the speakers on tracks like “Emeralds” and display why many consider Roc to be the best rapper doing it. His subject matter may be limited, but Roc’s visual wordplay and raw rhyming ability make him an addictive listen.
5. Aesop Rock- Skelethon
6. Nacho Picasso & BSBD – Exalted
Habits & Contradictions was an album that I considered reviewing, but it was released so far before I began writing for Thought On Tracks that I thought its time had passed. While the time may have passed for me to review it, it stayed in my listening rotation all year long. Schoolboy’s performance on H&C is as versatile as any rapper’s performance on any album in 2012. There are a few songs I may skip from time to time on H&C, but its high points are really high and reveal an artist with boundless energy and unlimited potential. “There He Go” and “Hands On The Wheel” were amazing singles and show off Q’s fun side, but aren’t representative of the overall artistic depth and variety found throughout Habits & Contradictions. The Alchemist produced “My Homie” https://soundcloud.com/prince-k-frempong/09-schoolboy-q-my-homie and the Kendrick Lamar assisted “Blessed” https://soundcloud.com/topdawgent/schoolboy-q-blessed-ft show off another side of Q and help explain why the word versatile always seems to come up when discussing Schoolboy’s music.
8. Open Mike Eagle – 4NML HSPTL
9. Homeboy Sandman – First of a Living Breed
Nacho Picasso and Blue Sky Black Death might not have received the attention they deserved in 2012, but that’s certainly not because of a lack of effort. Lord Of The Fly was the first of their full length collabs released in 2012, and like Schoolboy Q’s album, it was simply released too early in the year for me to review it. BSBD and Nacho used Lord Of The Fly to hone and perfect the style they created on their debut album For The Glory from 2011. Their focus allowed them to craft an exaggerated concept album of sorts that established Nacho as a larger than life devious cartoon character. Ultimately I slightly preferred the level of introspection that Nacho brought to the darker follow up Exalted, but Lord Of The Fly was still good enough to crack the top ten, making Nacho the only artist to have two albums on the list. “Phantom of The Opera” and “Naked Lunch” are the standout tracks, but there’s not a bad song in the bunch.
Written by John Bugbee