billy woods & Kenny Segal


by Will Cummings

billy woods returns after a prolific 2022 with Maps, a collaboration with producer Kenny Segal. The duo’s previous album, Hiding Places, is a highly regarded album in hip hop’s growing underground and abstract spaces and serves as a perfect introduction to curious listeners who are new to the scene. With Maps, the duo might have surpassed their previous effort in approachability, but occasionally sound stagnant.

The album begins with “Kenwood Speakers,” with a rickety, barebones instrumental with bone-crushing bass jabs. woods has one verse, detailing his relationship with his success, which he contrasts with the gentrification of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. woods sees that his economic advancement inevitably brings him closer to white people, and he resolves to terrorize them with their prejudices, bringing their vision of his world into their sanitized suburbia. He sets the scene of a dinner party with his new, white neighbors: “I turn the music up incrementally and told mischievous lies / I whispered in the host’s ear all night / I hear they found him in the morning / hose run from the exhaust pipe.” woods’s pen game is perfectly coldblooded and this is a phenomenal song to start the album.

“Soft Landing” has a unique soundscape for the duo, featuring simple guitar strumming and distant horns. The lyrics are as spectacular as ever, honed in on depression and suicidality while the chorus interpolates “Feeling Good” for a bitter juxtaposition. “Soundcheck” features Quelle Chris as he and woods riff on their disinterest in interacting with people, perhaps hinged with genuine agoraphobia. It’s clear that woods revels in his near anonymity from almost always covering his face, rapping, “Nikon flash, my face is the mask.” Segal continuously adds more instrumentation as the song progresses, crafting a beat that is equally mellow and beautiful.

“Blue Smoke” has woods rapping over straight jazz with minimal chops, essentially chasing down a standing bass groove for a minute and a half. The song is packed with food bars and a narrative about FBI agents monitoring woods fruitlessly. The instrumental swells are gorgeous and it’s certainly a highlight. “Bad Dreams Are Only Dreams” is even shorter and sounds like it was pulled from a rainy noir film. The lyrics are eerie and perfectly transition into a nightmarish run of tracks.

“Babylon By Bus” begins with a simple drum loop with obscured instrumentation before it switches to a menacing piano melody as ShrapKnel, the duo composed of Curly Castro and PremRock, begin trading bars. The beat then warps again to transcendent strings and horns as woods returns and gives one of his best verses, railing against the desire for simple resolutions to tragedies, comparing the horrible foreign policy that resulted in Al-Qaeda perpetrating 9/11 to telling a child that their grandmother went to heaven. He also has these two lines: “I lie down like V.I. Lenin,” and “God save the queen, but that train doesn’t stop here anymore.”

“Year Zero” follows with woods one-upping himself with vicious bars. “Sooner or later it’s gon’ be two unrelated active shooters / same place, same time / great minds, Tesla and Edison.” There’s also “My taxes pay police brutality settlements.” Danny Brown has an equally standout guest verse, my favorite lines being: “N****s illiterate, can’t read the room we in / so get your cameras out, it’s a movie then,” “Tell ‘em drive through like twenty-piece nugget / broke like the ice cream machine.” It’s like woods and Danny are dueling for the most ruthless verse while Segal creates an apocalyptic soundscape that entirely blows out at some points.

The next track, “Hangman,” could have scored The Lighthouse. It’s like you’re in standard diving dress and your skin is being peeled off by the raging waters of a Nor’easter. The chorus features a blaring ship’s horn, paired with the lyrics, “An ill wind in the trees, saplings bend / That bird in the hand squeezed dead.” The second verse is a force of nature. Just a crazy song that sounds like no other rap song.

The lead single “FaceTime” benefits from its placement on the album, sounding much more urgent and grandiose as woods raps about obsession and dysfunction in a relationship. The jazzy elements are gorgeous, especially in the outro and Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands has a great chorus. It’s followed by “Agriculture,” a very dour song with excellent sample-work. The outro is phenomenal: “It's land on either side of the car / It's places no one knows who you are / It's faces we never wore / People we couldn't be before / It's still things we never saw / But I don't wanna see more.” woods is phenomenal at capturing lingering depression and anxiety even as his career blossoms, and this is explored across the album.

“Waiting Around” is a great track with the legendary Aesop Rock. It’s one of a few laid back, perhaps even happy cuts here. A matchup of such talent is always welcomed and these are some of the best guys to ever touch a mic. However, I think every other song on the album pales in comparison to the next track, “NYC Tapwater.” This is one of woods’s best tracks, period. With one of many great samples selected for Maps, almost centered on a descending bassline that peaks through in just the right moments. It sounds excellent, and woods isn’t wrong when he says, “One sip of New York City tapwater, I'm back dialed in.” The first verse is some of the best imagery ever put into a rap song that perfectly captures the feelings of returning home and taking note of what has changed and what hasn’t, wrapped in a visceral sonder. The second verse continues this: “Sometimes I don’t tell anyone I'm back around / Just lay low, crack a fresh pound / The cat miss me the most, purring loud on my lap / Tranquilo, fragrant smoke lazy in the air.” This and the instrumental are just cheat codes to me and it is easily my favorite song I’ve heard this year. It’s all wistfully nostalgic, but woods, ever the realist, closes the song: “Don’t get it twisted boy, this city wicked, it will crush you with its feet.”

There’s a lot, a lot of praise I’ll give this album, but it’s got some issues, mostly in its choruses. “Rapper Weed” could be a highlight if it weren’t for a wobbly chorus that outstays its welcome. The lyrics are remarkably fun for woods, but it feels like the weak chorus is three-quarters of the song. I could say the same for “The Layover,” which features a clean piano loop but another stumbly core. These two are only amplified by the choruses being repeated and repeated, letting the songs’ worst aspect dominate their runtime. And then, there’s “Houdini,” which is far from a bad song, but maybe the most forgettable here. The verses are cool, but the chorus: “I was high all day… I escaped,” is arguably the least compelling lyric on the entire album.

The album closes with “As the Crow Flies,” an appropriate ending but not much of a song. E L U C I D takes over most of the track with him and woods both sharing quite meditative verses. Even with a mere eight lines, woods crafts a more memorable contribution, reflecting on his own mortality as he watches his son play. It’s a gorgeous vignette to conclude with and it feels like an indication of what’s to come from billy woods, and I’m excited for every second of it. Additionally, this album cements Kenny Segal as maybe the best producer in hip hop, or in elite company at the very least, and him and woods linking up is always a pleasure.