‘One of the best records of 2022 so far’: A Review of billy woods’ Aethiopes

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billy woods' latest album is unique, abrasive, ambitious and powerful, and is carried by phenomenal production and some of woods' best lyricism to date.

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Underground rapper billy woods (intentionally left lowercase, similarly to bell hooks) has been focused over the last couple of years on his extended collaborative project Armand Hammer, having released one of the best albums of 2021 in Haram just a year after the equally strong Shrines.

Armand Hammer, a hip-hop duo which sees woods work with Elucid, gained a great deal of popularity because of this and became something of a cult phenomenon thanks to new collaborations with other, more recognised underground rap superstars such as famed producer The Alchemist (with whom they collaborated with for the entirety of Haram), rapper Earl Sweatshirt, rapper Quelle Chris and more. 

Having been so productive with the Armand Hammer projects, and not having mentioned any solo projects since 2019’s Terror Management released, it’s not difficult to understand why fans became very excited when Aethiopes suddenly dropped.

Upon hearing the music, that hype becomes even clearer.

Aethiopes is one of the best records of 2022 so far, taking the success of woods’ prior experimental rap albums and channelling them towards something new – both new to his work and new to rap overall. Produced by Preservation, who gives the album an eerie, country-inspired sound (you read that right – hip-hop beats with spacy jazz and country instrumentals! It’s as bizarre and brilliant as it sounds!), billy woods is given all of the sonic room he needs to shine here, delivering incredibly strong verses with his usual focuses on grim history and politics.

The beautiful way that these bizarre, unique instrumentals run into one another and blend together only helps to complement the album’s dizzying feeling all the more. With use of field recordings, tribal drums, bursts of saxophone solos almost always cut too short and billy woods’ manic verses about gentrification, modern politics and industrialisation, woods creates a genuinely breath-taking record. woods has proven himself as one of the most well read rappers working since his career started in 2003, but here he enters an entirely new level – making what may be his most cohesive and carefully controlled record of his entire oeuvre.

“[Aethiopes] may be [woods’] most cohesive and carefully controlled record of his entire oeuvre.”

With features from many of underground rap’s current greats (Boldy James, Denmark Vessey, EL-P of Run the Jewels fame and the previously mentioned Armand Hammer member Elucid) and production that constantly evolves and subverts expectations whilst remaining fitting for the mood of the album as a whole, the tracks hit consistently… and they hit hard. With highlights like the phenomenal ‘NYNEX’, which sees a roster of rappers deliver manic, abstract verses over an uncomfortable beat of crashing cymbals, off-kilter bass and a stunning chopped harmonica crescendo, or ‘Sauvage’, this album is an absolute must-hear for fans of abstract or experimental hip-hop.

It’s a unique record, certainly, and one that takes a few listens before its impact starts to set in properly, but once it starts to set, it’s bound to stick for some time. This is ambitious, raw hip-hop, with excellently written poetic lyrics and fascinating production that bring forth new points of interest with each listen. With a consistent quality and a wide ranging sound, there is a hell of a lot to love here if you can get along with the strange and often abrasive sound. How a track like ‘Haarlem’ can exist is baffling enough, but the record as one full experience is even more memorable.

Aethiopes is distributed by Backwoodz Studios. Listen on Soundcloud below:

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