Last May, HBO released the two-part documentary George Carlin’s American Dream. Directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfigolio, there’s a lot of what you’d expect; the usual dull orgy of talking heads, Stephen Colbert dubbing him “The Beatles of comedy”, a pedestrian tribute to a comic pariah. That said, the show has its merits in spite of hedged bets, and this is down to the insights of his loved ones, particularly from his daughter Kelly Carlin.
In his later years, Carlin’s sets were consumed by a vengeful doomsday hunger. This begs the question; did a one-time symbol of hippie humanism really – as one special suggests – “Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die”, or was it all a misanthropic bit?
Kelly put this to him. If you have “no stake in the outcome”, then why care about your craft, about communication, and what sense is there to this almost self-obliterating productivity?
“You know”, he concedes, “You’ve got me there”.
New York based rapper billy woods has thrived with such friction for over twenty years now. Free from the light of steady public gaze, his rhymes have fermented with time; grown richer, funnier, more precise. He’s made a home of counterpoint, a curious cynic whose favourite game is “let’s suppose…”
This is, after all, a man whose renaissance kicked off with 2012’s ‘History Will Absolve Me’, a record with a black and white shot of Robert Mugabe for its cover and a quote from Fidel Castro as its title. woods is often mischaracterized as some kind of devout Marxist – his father was present in Zimbabwe’s war of independence and initial government – but in the context of the album, this is hardly an agit-prop call to action, more a psychic blast to be reckoned with, larger than clear judgement.
2019’s ‘Hiding Places’ was a career breakthrough, one of his most widely loved projects up to that point, and his first collaboration with L.A. producer and Project Blowed affiliate Kenny Segal. The album sought escape in isolation, a hermetic retreat from the outer world.
‘Maps’ can be read as ‘Hiding Places’ nomadic cousin. Both parties have said they had no desire to make a ‘Hiding Places Part Two’, yet the records do share a degree of emotional frankness relative to woods’ work with other producers.
This time round they take on the drudgery and ecstasy of life on tour. Now, this may prompt tired eye rolls. Ah ok, it’s one of those records is it? But fear not, this worn-out tale is rerouted to rich effect, our protagonist on a hero’s homeward odyssey, faced up against arch enemies of the present; disassociation and nagging mortality.
Opener ‘Kenwood Speakers’ is an old-school beat broken up by its own turbulent momentum. You’d perhaps think life on the road would be an ideal escape for woods, but here we find him reticent, checking himself with lines like: “Every time thing’s going good or having a laugh, have to remember God’s a hater”.
Segal is insistent on movement throughout ‘Maps’. The guitars of ‘Soft Landing’ fall like sunbeams through pokey passenger windows, ‘Blue Smoke’ is all breakneck free jazz, like a sped up cut from Aceyalone’s ‘A Book Of Human Language’, while ‘Babylon By Bus’ kicks in with a staggered IDM beat, but ends with an epic surge of strings. “People don’t want the truth,” spits a morbid woods, “They want me to tell ’em grandma went to heaven”.
As a rapper, woods has gone from strength to strength, his armoury fortified. It’s been a joy to witness. Where hooks were once short phrases bellowed on repeat, now he toys with the capabilities of his voice, like on ‘Rapper Weed’, where he coils up in blunted stitches, plays serpentine games with his tongue. He’s not smooth, but he’s not choppy either. Like any original voice he has his own sense of rhythm.
The record refuses to divide humour from dread. ‘Ground Zero’ tackles tech-optimism with a devolutionist bent, makes a chilling prediction based on the sportification of mass shootings, while Segal comes in hard with a flailing industrial beat. We then get a Carlin-like desire to purge this cursed Earth, a need for renewal that no aiders, abettors, or passive participants may get to be a part of. Danny Brown might well claim guest verse of the year, “back like skinny white girls”, he yelps, before wriggling out with an unhinged, punchline heavy freestyle. It’s a song you have to recover from, unsure whether to cackle or grimace.
Lead single ‘Facetime’ might be the lushest song in the whole woods discography. Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring comes through with a bonafide chart ready hook, while woods tries his utmost to immerse himself in a Playboi Carti after party, caught “looking like the help or someone that just wandered in”. This might be the record’s key impulse, to shed all the baggage and simply be, even for a brief point in time – “I was high all day/I escaped” he exhales on ‘Houdini’. Like those unpaid bills on the ‘Hiding Places’, the past is present whether forwarded or not. In fact, even when material conditions change, those same survival tactics maintain a barrier between yourself and this new existence, haunted by the thought that all this could fall apart.
On closer ‘As The Crow Flies’, woods lets us closest to his daily reality. It goes without saying that the man values his privacy – despite wanting to know everyone else’s business – but by withholding, these moments hit with greater heft than some more compulsively confessional artists. “It’s a trip that this is something we did,” he tells the mother of his child, “I watch him grow wondering how long I got to live”. Contrast that with “Ready To Die no Biggie”, the goading brag that kicked off ‘FaceTime’. This last verse flips all that on its head. Doesn’t parenthood, after all, mean you have the ultimate stake in the outcome?
Words: Eden Tizard