Billy Woods’s second album was the best hip-hop album of 2012 that nobody talked about. John talks about it. He thinks that makes him a badass.
I had hoped to tackle an album put out by an artist who I despise this week, but it took me too long to realize that this would involve having to listen to his album. I mean, I could have written all of my criticisms of the man without citing his music in any of it and passed it off as a column, but I’m running low on fucks to give and I have no time for that shit. Besides, my intent for the past few weeks has been to cover albums that we didn’t give the proper amount of press, and all things considered, History Will Absolve Me didn’t get nearly enough press from everyone.
To be completely technical, we did cover this album—it placed 21st in Earbuddy’s Best Albums of 2012, making it the second-highest ranking conventional hip-hop album on our list (behind Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music). When I was bitching to the other staffers about how some of my picks placed, Chris and Jay, both of whom didn’t care for my top pick, countered with “We didn’t like that pick, but we loved that Billy Woods album”. It placed #9 on my personal list, and most folks who have given it a listen enjoyed it as well. This begs a question: why hasn’t this received more love?
For starters, Billy Woods tends to be elusive. Google his name and the album title and the first page that shows up displays more reviews than ways to buy it—a link to the site of the label that released it, Backwoodz Studioz, shows up on the second page, and even they don’t have much information on Woods. From what I’ve been able to gather, this is the second solo album (and the first in eight years) from Woods, a veteran rapper who has spent much of his career as half of the Super Chron Flight Brothers, whose music leans more towards comic tendencies. History Will Absolve Me, however, is far from a laugh riot and spends most of its time deconstructing so many hip-hop tropes that it can be difficult to listen to so many albums in the genre after the treatment they receive.
In many ways, History Will Absolve Me is much like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s The Heist. In both albums, the role of the rapper as a participant is pushed back more than it is emphasized, established systems get questioned and criticized, and almost every song has a message. What helps the former sound so much more vibrant is that Woods rarely paints anyone as being in the right. “Ca$h 4 Gold” is about strip club culture that references practically every song that you’d expect in a place that serves alcohol (“Don’t Stop Believing”, “Roxanne”, “Sweet Child o’ Mine”, etc.), but Woods doesn’t paint the strippers as broken birds or girl-next-doors corrupted by ambition or money-hungry druggies or anything of the sort—they are women who accept that they sell dreams to men who “toss their child support on stage”. One could suppose that there are tragic elements to these women accepting this sort of role, but Woods wisely leaves that and other questions up to interpretation. The same approach helps elevate “Bill Cosby”. Is the narrator a self-loathing alcoholic father who takes out his anger on everyone around him, or is he the only sane man living on a street whose moral value is rapidly going down the tubes? There is more than enough credence to either theory. Even the colonialists who venture into Africa in “The Man Who Would Be King”, though characterized as overpowered dolts, manage to escape with a degree of dignity as Woods paints them as heroes in their own heads who want to spread the word of their God. Things don’t turn out well for anyone by the end of the song, but Woods lets you decide whether more fault could be put on the nature of Christianity or the failings of the colonialists. If this were an Immortal Technique song, the answer would have been spelled out for you, but by molding these situations in unconventional ways, Woods’s material does more to inform a discussion than a history lesson, making for songs that stick with you for a while.
The production on this album similarly flips conventions. The names behind the boards won’t turn heads (Willie Green, Marmaduke, A.M. Breakups, Man Mantis), but I hope they don’t stay unknown for long as these guys make powerful stuff out of materials that I swore would have been rote by now. The album breaks open in a big way with “Crocodile Tears”, combining guitars with a sampled cry of pain that absolutely shouldn’t work. “Duck Hunt”, meanwhile, begins with a sample of the video game and morphs into a haunting bit of paranoid psychedelia. Heck, there isn’t a bad beat on this thing, and to list highlights would involve listing every song.
It’s worth noting that this album hits hard. Woods doesn’t rap fast and he doesn’t have a sophisticated vocabulary, but he raps as though he needs to get his thoughts out for his own sake, and that can make for exhausting listening over the course of History Will Absolve Me. Actually, it might be too exhausting for its length: none of these songs are bad, but this album is sixty-four minutes stretched over eighteen tracks, with no skits or interludes to give the listener a chance to get their bearings. Maybe that’s deliberate—overpowering the listener seems to be Woods’s primary goal anyway—but cut this thing down to fifteen tracks and it would have cracked my top five and made a serious case for the top spot. A good place to start would have been with the songs featuring guest vocalists. Nobody stinks up the joint, but most of them (with the noteworthy exception of singer L’Wren, who sings as though she knows she is, at best, comic relief) seem unaware of Woods’s approach to music, leaving them to sound somewhat at odds with the material around them. Besides that, though, History Will Absolve Me’s title screams for this to be a solo venture through and through, which makes me wonder why there are guest rappers on this album in the first place. These are extremely minor flaws given how well the album succeeds in its other goals, and that this didn’t receive nearly enough love last year is an unfortunate oversight. Then again, maybe I’m the weird one for giving this a chance in the first place.
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