The Bleary Radicalism of Billy Woods’ Aethiopes

From the very first moments of Aethiopes, it feels like the walls are closing in. Outside, there is a gated fortress, with galvanized steel security fences and cameras adorning the towering brick structure. Inside, his mother is breaking plates as his parents argue. He thinks his neighbor might be Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose regime in Ethiopia killed anywhere from 500,000 to 2,000,000 people, who still lives in Zimbabwe today despite being charged with genocide in absentia by an Ethiopian court. The swirling piano behind him is tense, discordant, anxious. A beat with no pulse, the song seems to limp into a hesitant, arrhythmic shuffle. Even the boundless sky above seems like only a temporary escape.

So begins “Asylum,” the first track from the stark, striking new album from Brooklyn-based luminary Billy Woods. It is a staggering dispatch from the rapper, lyrically dense, richly written, and dripping with unease. The songs here form a collection full of cold, dark visions that bleed from the eternal scars of colonial oppression in Africa and late-capitalist drudgery, incisive and unrelenting, lurching forward with every step. These are fractured, feverish transmissions, rhythmically intangible in structure and deeply haunted, drawing on jazz, dub, film scores, and filled with voices around every corner. 

That’s something really remarkable about Aethiopes, perhaps as singular a rap record as you’ll hear this year: while consistently blistering and pointed, it’s also very much a communal record, a summit bringing together various voices from the underground hip-hop scene. Though it’s a difficult task to sound as firmly in-pocket as Woods does, there are a lot of great turns here. EL-P is forceful on “Heavy Water,” finding a rhythm that, at its best, resembles his days with Company Flow. On “NYNEX,” an Armand Hammer reunion with ELUCID that also features Quelle Chris and Denmark Vessey, it’s fascinating to listen as all these voices intermingle over the sputtering harmonica-driven beat, a flurry of gravelly voices pitter-pattering through what sounds like the ghost of a Sergio Leone film soundtrack.  

Previously, Woods has rapped over beats from the likes of Navy Blue, Earl Sweatshirt, and Kenny Segal. Recently, Armand Hammer collaborated with The Alchemist, whose dusty soul loops and boom-bap beats animated their excellent 2021 record, HARAM. On Aethiopes, Woods locks into a groove with veteran NY producer DJ Preservation, whose sparse, bracing beats don’t even sound like beats — if anything, they’re rough-edged sketches where instruments linger and reverberate against one another, always sounding like they’re just out of arm’s reach.

On “Sauvage,” Preservation culls together this flurry of clinking metal, timpani, and intermittent blipping, an expressive soundscape lingering precariously on a precipice, ever-so-often filtering in this blissful guitar that disappears just as fast as it arrived. “Christine” moves at a creeping pace, molting its prowling rhythm with snippets from a Mets game on the radio and a jazz-drumming outro that only amplifies the restraint at play. On the excellent “Remorseless,” the penultimate track on the album, Preservation fixates on this muted, flute-like synth, a gliding melody punctuated by disembodied, intangibly soulful vocal snippets. It’s a perfect platform for Woods’ disillusioned reflections on capitalism and neocolonialism, a refutation of generational wealth and a scathing indictment of bourgeois leftism.

It all comes to a head on the final track, “Smith + Cross.” It’s perhaps the most effusive beat here, a warm flood of organs, strings, and vocal melodies drenched in reverb, a soaring electric guitar lick lingering in the backdrop, all bolstered by rumbling brass underneath. In one breath, Woods pontificates on an emotional affair that’ll never go any further. In another, he alludes to the revolutionary Assata Shakur, currently living in Cuba as a refugee from the US. 

Fundamentally, Aethiopes is a record about Africa, using the archaic European term for Africans as an inflection point to observe the condition of African life through the lens of the colonized. It’s a work entirely informed by the weight of generational trauma, a weight that’s never laid more bare than on “Smith + Cross.” The history of Africa, as Woods contemplates it, is a history of dehumanization and exploitation, of reducing Black people to the same commodity status as something like sugar, molasses, or rum. Even when the cane fields are set alight, Blackness is commodified; he looks at an exhibit in the museum, only to see himself in the diorama.

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