ALBUMS: Trying to Give E L U C I D and billy woods My Money (But That’s a Whole Thing)

Auditing the best rapper alive and his stranger half

billy woods and E L U C I D (Image: Backwoodz Studioz)

At press time, I probably wouldn’t say I “get” the third E L U C I D solo album I Told Bessie.

It sounds pretty good so far, but I don’t think I’m going to love it like his Armand Hammer partner billy woods’ months-old Aethiopes. I just paid $19 for a CD of Bessie from Backwoodz Studioz’ web store anyway. Why? Because I felt the same about Aethiopes at first, too, and now it’s my album of the year. Aethiopes CDs are currently sold out on the Backwoodz site, as are Armand Hammer’s Haram and Shrines, and woods’ Terror Management and the explosive Kenny Segal union Hiding Places, which started this whole mess for me in the first place.

Aethiopes CDs go for $175-400 on Discogs; Backwoodz traditionally only does runs of 500 of these things. I’m watching one on eBay whose bids end in the next fifteen hours. It’s currently up to around $70 including the $20 shipping. Contemplating buying it like this is normal. I was lucky enough to score a Hiding Places CD in 2019 because it, too, was my album of the year.

But my admiration for the others took longer to materialize, and in the last three years woods’ word-of-mouth and critical rep has inflated and now I’m looking at possibly purchasing those one day at Dan Flashes prices. One day I was indeed able to score a Terror Management CD for a “reasonable” $33 on Discogs. Three to go, and that’s assuming other, older woods albums don’t captivate me and that I don’t develop an interest in Elucid. Nothing is off the table at this point, I’m obsessed and this is a classic cult romance with an out-of-reach artist.

Artist: E L U C I D 

Album: I Told Bessie 

Label: Backwoodz Studioz 

★★★1/2 (3.5/5 stars) 

This scarcity scam-cum-business model is teeming in cult rap: Mach-Hommy, Westside Gunn, and Roc Marciano gouge their own faithful at Martin Shkreli prices and low print runs if any. In some ways, it’s RZA’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin scheme come to life on an accessible level: More than one copy of these works exists, but the number feels way below the demand, and it probably helps the legend grow. Something is working its magic when I felt it was safer to spend $19 on an album that hadn’t fully sold me yet because I may not get another chance by the time I realize how much I love it.

E L U C I D I Told Bessie, Backwoodz Studioz 2022

Of course, the nature of the music crafted by billy woods and E L U C I D contributes to the idea that these albums turn to ghosts or dust or worse if I don’t possess them quickly enough. Their soundscape-heavy production alone or together is more than rich enough to earn the RZA comparison. And the mystagogy of the lyrical content makes you want to root for them to be the next rappers to follow Kendrick Lamar to a Pulitzer, especially woods, who’s as evocative as anyone in the music and a fearsome talent at his prolific best like 2007 Lil Wayne.

Admirer Brad Luen recently suggested woods is the best rapper alive and who am I to disagree when I’m planning my budget around acquiring his already lost physical catalogue. He also gets down to cases with Aethiopes better than I could: “woods creates this pan-African, pan-diasporic description of reality as a strategy to distract from his near-future pessimism.” 

Having processed Trump, COVID-19, SCOTUS and other plagues in 2022, I identify with woods more than I ever hoped to. In music it’s barely sounded like anyone’s pissed enough, but the sheer criminality and day-to-day hopelessness yet inability to turn away from the Trump enterprise helped me access Hiding Places after my initial brush with Armand Hammer, Paraffin, left me cold. Suddenly a middle-aged black man who declines to show his face — bellowing “you promised!” at the god who never showed, cracking pitch-black jokes about his imaginary family needing to take jobs to support his rap career and cracking his voice illustrating his real childhood of pretending to play arcade games he couldn’t afford — was the only person I felt wasn’t shitting me.

Artist: billy woods and Preservation 

Album: Aethiopes 

Label: Backwoodz Studioz 

★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars) 

That was before COVID-19, which is currently in my lungs for the first time ever and making me cough over a week after my first exposure. As woods put it on Hiding Places, it’s not the heat it’s the dust. These days I play the others a lot more, probably because I’m still unraveling their mysteries, but I’m pretty sure I now prefer the more abstract and less nakedly emotional Aethiopes. Whatever a so-called victory lap is, it ain’t this. With an appearance from El-P, now a Run the Jewels megastar, woods and his producer this time, Ka’s Dr. Yen Lo co-conspirator Preservation, shore up a dark, Tom Waits-like clatter that feels like a richer pass at what Danny Brown was trying to accomplish on 2016’s clangorous Atrocity Exhibition.

billy woods and Preservation Aethiopes, Backwoodz Studioz 2022

Things start popping from the git with the funeral, itchy jazz of “Asylum,” which so knocked me off my hinges at first that I thought it wasn’t sampled, echoed later as woods sounds off over rehearsal-room piano banging on “Haarlem.” The metallophonic bounce of “Wharves” is pitched somewhere between Tibetan singing bowls and an Indonesian gamelan ensemble. It’s immediately followed by the rattling chains and near musique concrete of “Sauvage,” which also features Boldy James, a raspy cult figure I don’t get whom I feel safer not dropping $19 on. “NYNEX” — which opens with the year’s most jaw-dropping lines: “The future isn’t flying cars, it’s Rachel Dolezal absolved / It’s autonomous computers sending shooters back in time at the behest of defunct message boards” — underpins its visions of slave masters’ children with quacking old harmonica for punctuation. The mood is dark, people.

But it’s also an unfathomably gorgeous panoply, straightforwardly so on the penultimate denouement “Remorseless,” which quickly espouses the depressive credo that psychologically binds me to my favorite working musician: “There’s a freedom in admitting it’s not gonna get better.” Since he’s usually not shouting at god, woods often reads his lines with the bored disgust of a fortune teller who knows you’re gonna get yourself cursed anyway: “You shouldn’t wear a dead man’s shoes,” “On the bright side they only gave him house arrest once they seen his disabled.”

There’s fewer jokes than on Hiding Places; it’s a sideman who slips in the rare “that’s no cap in all caps at the same time.” woods gives away the title in a FADER interview, that a major concern of this album is how “Europeans decided what Blackness was,” but the rest is up to us. I’d say he frequently flashes back and forth between his Zimbabwean childhood memories and ponderings with framing language that’s familiar to Americans, albeit reference-heavy stuff that demands footnotes and a reading list. E L U C I D is probably his lighter half, but that doesn’t mean he’s Flavor Flav. Just that I Told Bessie is easier to do drugs to.

The duo of billy and Preservation designed a tangible batch of sonics to make you feel blindfolded as you’re extracted to a second location you can barely make out from the audible context clues. But E L U C I D’s free-associative non-punchlines like “my head is round so I can change my mind” feel like they’re beamed in from some kind of Lewis Carroll hallucination with slimy, melting-off-the-walls beats to match. “Just got to Heaven and I can’t sit down,” he repeats on the opening “Spelling.” It doesn’t feel like you’re meant to be in this place for much longer than your lysergic acid dealer said you would.

On Armand Hammer records together, their samples are so acerbic and voices so taunting that it’s hard to untangle the tag team from the dense jungle of sarcastic rage being lobbed at you in chunks. These solo releases go further to present the difference in woods and E’s personalities than anything I’ve ever noticed previously. Where woods can sound like he’s reciting like some kind of playwright synthesized him, E L U C I D is more of a classic what-the-fuck-is-he-talking-about archetype in hip-hop, your Busdriver or Aesop Rock.

I Told Bessie doesn’t feel like it has an overarching theme, which makes it the less intense of the two by default just because you’re sure no one’s ever going to write a thesis on it. It’s chewy, wayward, seasick, and psychedelic, down to the crunchy guitar and drum fills that make “Smile Lines” stand out. “Mangosteen” glistens like broken mirror pieces reflecting something beautiful upside down and scrambled. In some ways, his words don’t feel worth squinting for and that’s a reward in itself. E L U C I D’s description of the album does contain a bit about his grandma that he named it after, but I think it aspires to attractive, if blurry scenery. You can just let his flows pass like telephone poles in the train window.

E L U C I D probably doesn’t mean it as the ideal companion piece to his friend’s Russian novel of an album, but we don’t get to choose what the world makes of us. And unfairly, I am a European. By all rights, I am not part of the conversations these records are having. I just know that one is happening beside me while I politely tune out and try to focus hard on the other one, which is so boisterously engaging from the next room that I can’t help but need to absorb as much as I can.

He did get my money, though. With these two I’ll take whatever I can get, while I still can. While any of us can.


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Ted Miller

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

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