There is no need to get into Billy Woods’ back story as an underground rapper. His website does a fine job of that. His newest release History Will Absolve Me (I’m assuming named after Fidel Castro’s famous speeches) is a cerebral record that demands awareness and patience from its listeners. There are no big catchy hooks, escapist melodies, or rose colored lyrics. The brooding kineticism of the beats surrounds his narrative about social ills, political turmoil, and personal angst and courage, in ways reminiscent of Def Jux’s nascent days as a label and aesthetic. It’s a style of rap that became very joyless and dogmatic by the late aughts, but through the eye of Woods, his producers, and partners in rhyme carries a new dynamism.
The album’s second track “Crocodile Tears” sounds like rap being delivered amongst a missile and a laser fight. Woods uses his words to paint vignettes of urban plight, change, and survival in a way that they almost swat away the thunderous pulse of Willie Green’s beat. This is Woods’ rap approach: unflinching relentless couplets that mask an intricate accumulation of street knowledge, historical signifiers, and popular references in their apparent simplicity. On “The Man Who Would Be King” he lets loose “walk like Quetzalcoatl amongst the conquered / dick hard, put myself in the stars / his woman in the dirt, face down ass up / doing god’s work” outlining the history of colonial invasion and exploitation in western Africa. Later on the album, A.M. Breakups laces Woods some thing serious with the 8-bit futurist bap of “Duck Hunt” (which even begins with the sound of the Nintendo classic) as Woods goes in to do his vocal work.
The entire album, an unflinching New York long player, carries these themes and sounds proudly. “Freedman’s Bureau”, perfectly paired with Elucid, “The Foreigner”, and “Famous Last Words” are all stand outs amongst records of guttural and analytical rap. Race, culture, white supremacy, violence, and how individuals and communities navigate these systems of power and commerce are handled with complexity and attention to details. Over the course of 18 songs though, the record’s mood can become very stark, and the tone rather numbing. Without a doubt History Will Absolve Me is a style of rap needs to exist, I just believe Billy and company could have edited for greater effect. Some times brevity is clarity. Either way this is a strong statement record that sounds like a bloodied and militant marching band triumphantly playing their songs while avoiding being gunned down by their rival and enemy.