Billy Woods & Kenny Segal’s Hiding Places is to music what Parasite is to the big screen
Artist: Billy Woods & Kenny Segal
Album: Hiding Places
★★★★ 1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
Internet-beloved rapper Earl Sweatshirt recently released Feet of Clay, a brief, Old Testament-alluding batch of rap songs that allegedly meditate on a “crumbling empire,” and it may prove revealing as such.
But Earl’s kudzu-like sonics, no matter how compelling, are braided with equally thorny raps carefully delivered in monotone so that nothing stumbles phonically. As such, all the audio tiptoeing renders a pretty good record a little stoney in execution and very hard to parse without a Genius tab open as you listen. We know he’s depressive because he tells us.
On the best rap album of 2019, which may well be the best album of 2019, period, Billy Woods, a rapper who could be well into his 40s (the rapper’s personal details, including his facial features, are not easy to come by), is almost as impressionistic. But there’s enough concrete detail in his images, in his articulated instrumentation from flute to rock guitar, in his God-cursing delivery, he makes you feel that impression. That’s because Hiding Places, Woods’ collaboration with indie-producer maestro Kenny Segal , hits like glass window against an eviction notice tied to a brick.
To say the recording artist has seen shit is almost redundant; Hiding Places is in a rarefied class with say, The Marshall Mathers LP, where you smell the shit in real time because Woods takes you there, shrugging off “the threat of sepsis” or observing “my building smell like burnt chocolate.” Rap has been illuminating the reality of inner-city poverty for four decades and you’ve never heard it illustrated as barbecue sauce on egg rolls, five-dollar phone calls from the corner store, “rubber gloves, crisp lapels, bloodshot high society” or the old miner’s lament that “it’s not the heat, it’s the dust.” From the git, Kenny Segal matches the crestfallen opener “Spongebob” and Woods’ cries of “Came back to god like motherfucker you promised / You promised!” with strangled, fuzzy line-in guitar. Plenty of alt-rap is class-conscious, defeated, thoroughly observed. Billy Woods shows actual fear. You do not end this record feeling he will be okay, the way you do with, say, Black Thought on a well-conceived Roots album. You do not end this record feeling you will be okay either.
That doesn’t mean it’s not hilarious. “Quit my job to kick raps instead / So family meeting: Everybody gotta start bringing in bread” is a cruel laugh at one end of the hip-hop spectrum, “I don’t wanna go see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall” the other. The squelchy “Bigfakelaugh” is even meaner: “If you haven’t heard a word from me in ten years / Assume me dead” or “cultivated a better class of friends.” The same song mocks a social worker’s “thought exercise” before admiring her thighs, hips, and “ass kinda flat but that’s fine.”
Actual hiding places factor into the dilapidated structures Woods imagines that Segal replicates so succinctly with drunken, Waits-ian noises and stepped-on saxophones, from “copping legal weed from a fake hole in the wall” to the Holocaust-evoking “I was in the ceiling when they swept the building.” Like Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, Woods’ broken narrative leaves open the possibility that there’s always another basement with another, worse-off family, below the condemned structure. Hiding Places hits harder than, say, Parquet Courts’ meticulously verbalized Wide Awake! because it’s coming from inside, and the misty phantasmagoric backing evokes Brooklyn mornings with crusty radiators, while suffocated guitars warp like post-rain wood, and percussion crashes like silverware to the floor on tracks like “Checkpoints,” which takes the basic premise of Drive-By Truckers’ “The Righteous Path” and stinks it up.
After four straight, sweltering blueses, the more whimsical “Houthi” cracks the window slightly and lets in some flute and glockenspiel while Woods namedrops J.D. Salinger and Miss Havisham in the same breath . Then there’s “A Day in a Week in a Year” the ghostly beautiful five minute centerpiece pairing cracked-stem daffodils with crack pipes, a childhood memory of when “life is just two quarters in the machine, but whether you got it or you don’t that’s the thing” and Woods was “fucking with the joystick pretending I was really playing.”
VIDEO: Billy Woods & Kenny Segal “Houthi”
There’s never been emo rap like this and there’s never been political rap like this, with such an acute, scathing analysis that even “Anthropologists watch the negroes sell dope.” The song called “Toothy” refers to Obama and compares him to a pimp; it’s not a compliment. Nor is “I’m chilling like Africans who never felt the whip.” In this universe, there’s little respect, because respect is earned and nobody’s earning. Plus, “you can’t eat pride.” So move over, Hemingway, “Ain’t no bedtime / Mama on cocaine” gives “For sale: Baby shoes / Never worn” a run for its six-word money. “Wages of sin held in escrow” and “This your land of plenty?” (that question mark counts as more than a sixth word) hold their own, too. And everyone’s quoting the Public Enemy reference because their income bracket is living it: “I got a letter from my insurer the other day / Opened it and read it, they said I wasn’t covered.”
Besides observing with Gil Scott-Heron’s eye, the other bar to clear is cathartic musical translation, something the compressed playlist dynamics of Spotify have made extra-difficult in the Trump era. Hiding Places’ shapeshifting landscapes — calling them beats is too shortsighted — evoke El-P’s Fantastic Damage if he had the elaborate orchestration come-ups of 2015 Kendrick Lamar, an aural junkyard of doomy, slowed constructions, and rusted synths with the looped guitar accidents of “Speak Gently” and the torn-ligament timestretching of “Red Dust” poking out. The almost funky “Crawlspace” reunites Woods’ duo Armand Hammer with Clucid over pixelated dark-web funk with a distant melodica-or-harmonica coda.
“Speak Gently” is the only song that tells more than it shows, ending on a monologue about the scores of former tenants’ mail they didn’t want forwarded, and how someone will likely get Woods’ mail when he’s dead. Closer “Red Dust” gets pretty ugly (“I got money with niggas you should not leave with a child for two fucking seconds” “Shrug before you lick the revolver, should’ve listened”) before “I wanna show you what I learned from the worst people I’ve ever known” reveals it to be somewhat of a love song, a faint glimmer that there was someone or something worth living for among the rubble Woods knows he’ll return to. Or maybe the confounding turgid excellence of Woods and Segal’s masterpiece paradoxically makes it impossible to lose hope in a world where art can be this good.
AUDIO: Billy Woods & Kenny Segal Hidden Places (full album)