A friend once described a great book to me as “maddeningly good,” which is a level of praise I often think about–a rarefied strata if artistic achievement, work so good it makes you want to either take it into a cave to study alone, or to grab the closest person and scream the words of it in their face, to make sure that they too are driven mad by the singular expressive talent contained therein.
Billy Woods Aethiopes is such a work, his latest in a string of such works, each more maddening than the last. This time around, Woods has chosen the masterful production of Preservation, who draws from a seemingly bottomless bag of globe-spanning samples to provide a sonic palette that shifts between the sparsely unsettling and the hauntingly beautiful, laden with history, memory, violence, and desire. Those things are there, and more, and it’s clear that Woods and Preservation worked hand in glove to craft a landscape of such astounding vastness.
Another word I think about when trying to quantify great writing is: “irreducible.” Summary is necessarily an act of omission. Aethiopes is high poetry, language in its most dense, concentrated state of meaning, and experiencing it not just written, but through the raw intensity of Woods’ oratory, brings the words viscerally to life. Work like this cannot be “reviewed” in the sense that it’s so far beyond the framework of good and bad, of numerical scores, or really any critical reception, which has consisted mostly of slack-jawed amazement. Aethiopes, along with Woods’ entire body of work, demands serious literary criticism at the level of a doctoral thesis, but at the same time, the work contains a palpable contempt for Western academic discourse. That contempt is rooted in a thorough understanding of the material, and a weary knowledge of how easily such discourse is weaponized in the name of power, and how quickly ideologies melt away into violence. Still, Woods’ bars are just as steeped in political history and literary theory as they are in his own esoteric memories and fictive imaginings. The album’s opener, “Asylum,” sets the tone perfectly, inviting us into that space from the perspective of a child looking over the fence at the house next door:
I think Mengitsu Haile Mariam is my neighbor
Whoever it is moved in and put an automated gate up
Repainted brick walls atop which now cameras rotated
By eight, the place dark, one light burn later
Razor wire like a slinky
Rumor is parcel bomb took the secretary right eye and pinky
Evenings, he take a snifter of whisky on the veranda
I wonder what he’s thinking
Woods lived in Zimbabwe as a child, next to the Ethiopian embassy, though he stated that Mengitsu Haile Mariam, the leader of Ethiopia’s socialist government who fled to Zimbabwe after his government was dissolved, was not actually there at the time. Still, it’s evidence of Woods’ prowess as a writer, combining a kernel of biographical truth with a historical reality and expanding that into a visceral narrative that draws power from both sides. Woods’ raps tend to work in spaces like this, at the intersection of history and personality, focusing intimately on well-known figures and contextualizing them within confines of their own humanity.
The album’s title works in largely the same way. Aethiopes is an antiquated word used by Europeans to refer to North and East Africans, and stands in the context of the album for a construct, partly remembered, and partly imagined. There are many speakers and many voices, all deftly employed to challenge the colonial inventions of otherness, of Blackness as constituted by White Americans and Europeans, and of the physical, geographical, and political realities of Africa unfurling into the infinitely malleable territory of the mind.
Among those voice are a host of features from some of the other best rappers alive. Boldly James and Gabe ‘Nandez provide a gritty street rap feel to “Sauvage,” and Denmark Vessey, ELUCID, and Quelle Chris provide the bulk of the bars on “NYNEX,” following an absolutely cutting intro by Woods. The Indelible MCs El-P and Breeze Brewin trade off with Woods on “Heavy Water,” in a kind of futuristic throw-back to the classic 90’s rap form. Perhaps the closest to Woods in the scope of his conjuration is Mike Ladd, on “Christine,” who convincingly damns the last three centuries in a few short lines, although its clear that Ladd, like everybody else, is a guest in Woods’ world.
Woods sometimes references the writing of French philosopher Giles Deleuze, whose frameworks can be useful to understanding Woods’ music. These songs function by narrating a series of assemblages as they interact with structures of colonial and patriarchal power, nomadic collectives, despotic impulses, war machines, and the insidious presence of capital undergirding it all, swelling and distending. As Woods raps on “Versailles” “Somebody made a killing, I just dug the grave/Capital gains, and gains, and gains.”
If there’s criticism to be levied, it’s that the intensity is an acquired taste. This is not music that can be listened to casually. This music demands attention. It’s also deeply pessimistic, able to take measured enjoyment in moments, but with a constant glance backwards at a past full of unspeakable traumas, and not much hope for whatever future could grow from there. “It’s a freedom to admitting its not gonna get better, washing your hands of people you’ve known forever/I’d be a liar if I feigned surprise, a goat eats where it’s tethered,” Woods raps on the stunning penultimate track, “Remorseless,” which transitions seamlessly into “Smith + Cross,” in a final burst recollective energy.
I was able to see Woods perform “Smith + Cross,” along with a few more of these songs at a phenomenal Armand Hammer show at Polaris hall earlier this month, and seeing Woods rap live feels as though he’s grabbing your head and screaming the words directly into your brain. Anything more than a single set could easily drive one mad. Aside from the new material he performed, nearly everybody in the crowd knew every word, and spoke them back to him with a fervent energy. It’s easy to lose sight of the power of words in their quotidian usages, but experiencing a project like Aethiopes is a reminder that words can speak power in and out of being, and that language can rend the world apart, and build it back anew.