Random Record Review: Billy Woods “Aethiopes”

There is this unspoken agreement among both fans and artists of hip-hop culture. That rap is at its core a form of orated poetry. Not really meant to be read but mainly heard. To be expressed and appreciated in the context of a song or a beat. While we have accepted this as the norm there has always been an exception to the rule. Especially when the infux of spoken word poets got into rap. A focus was being placed on not just the patterns and styles. There was more of an emphasis placed on word choices and vocabulary as well. Especially in the late 80s & all throughout the 90s.

Groups like Company Flow, Jugganots, Blackstar, and countless other underground acts. They all played their role in pushing lyrics to the forefront. I would even go as far as saying that this project while as a standalone is an important body of work, still pays homage to that era of rap. With cameos by El-P & Breeze Brewin, it’s fair to acknowledge Billy’s head nod to the era. A head nod that some would say is long overdue. So many of the artists involved in what some have dubbed “Renaissance” have yet to give the respect that is duly deserved to ones that came before, but I digress.

Since about 2018 there has been an uptick in rap that pays homage to this “Golden Era.” Whatever that means. If I’m being honest I hate that title. This idea there is this certain era when rap was at its best. I don’t think that really exists. I think as is the case with most art forms, there is an evolution. A cyclical process that allows for progress in subcultures as young as hip-hop. Styles are revisited and the culture basically moves forward. Continuing to show an eloquence in places not known for it. Rappers like Billy Woods give us more of a reflective mood to their story telling. Words aren’t just used to as tools to speak on crime cleverly anymore. Words writen like poetry can be spoken as such to a beat. Billy has this way of writing. His words would be just as poignant if read with no beat as they are with one. I don’t think the beat is really needed, but is a welcome texture added to the picture painted by the veteran emcee.

The black experience is so complex and subtly nuanced. Artists like Billy Woods are necessary reminders of the intelligent observers here to speak for those voices drowned out by the loud boastful raps we are too accustomed to. His project is “dense,” as Professor Skye described in his own review of the project. Laden with historical references, and samples from Kongi’s Harvest. The cohesive project places you in the landscapes created by Billy & Preservation.

There are parallels between Jazz & Hiphop. Billy & Preservation continue the tradition perfectly while also getting personal with descriptions of his youth. I love lyrics that are personal without being necessarily obvious about it, lyrics that make a statement without being obvious that either. Let’s call it intelligent discretion. Often in rap discretion is necessary because the rapper is usually referencing a crime or something that requires discretion when speaking on it. I think Billy in his way uses a similar discretion to both “protect the innocent” as they say, and to leave an aire of relatability to the stories.

His lyrics are more poetry than bars, more thesis than essay. There is a maturity to his subject matter and I think that’s great for the evolution of this culture. The hip-hop audience is growing, both in age and sophistication. For those of us who see things differently and think more deeply we have places we can go. Worlds we can explore thanks to intelligent writers like Billy Woods.