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If anyone can be called a global citizen, it’s Brooklyn rapper billy woods. Born in Washington, D.C. to a Caribbean mother and Zimbabwean father, he has lived in both his paternal and maternal countries, and others. But he has also been a New Yorker for long enough to have a sip of its distinguishable tap water make his heart snap back to the city; a subject explored in “NYC Tapwater,” a song from Maps, his 2023 album with producer Kenny Segal.
Yet that same sense of homecoming is defined by his absence. Maps is a record about traveling, chronicling all the joys and pitfalls of a life lived on the road. He likens himself to Anthony Bourdain and describes his stage demeanor on “The Layover,” explores dark thoughts and brief moments of quietude in an airplane on “Soft Landing,” and trades stories with Aesop Rock on how to kill time abroad on “Waiting Around.” To be able to create it, woods and producer Kenny Segal chose to build up their mutual creative energy again, rather than dive back in where they left after 2019’s Hiding Places. “[For each album], I like to create a structure and try to work within it,” the Brooklyn rapper notes while enjoying a mojito in between tour stops in the Netherlands. “Obviously, at times, you chafe at those restrictions by the time you finish. And you feel like doing something totally different, which is good. It’s important for me, both for my own entertainment and challenge, I want to do things differently.”
Neither party was interested in creating a spiritual sequel to Hiding Places. In fact, that album closes with “Red Dust,” the one song woods is certain he’ll never be performing live. “There’ve been precious few times in my life—thank God—where I really wanted to take a person’s life. But that was one of them,” he explains. “It was one of the most negative emotions from which I’ve ever made a song. And probably the most negative emotions I’ve ever felt. I feel it’s a good song and I’m happy I made it, it’s probably part of the reason I’m still around to see my kids now. But I’m glad to never return there.”
The song was written after a loved one of his was brutally assaulted, and served as an exorcism of what he was going through as a response. “You on the list / Planet ain’t big enough, we can’t coexist,” he opens its final verse, before picturing how the target of his hatred’s “throat would open like a hose.” The rapper explains further: “Hate, anger, violence, helplessness—part of wanting to kill a person is helplessness; otherwise, you’d address whatever the situation is. I don’t want to trivialize that, and I don’t want to drink a cup of poison on a regular basis. [‘Red Dust’] was like a removal of the poison from my body.”
The new joint effort by billy woods and Kenny Segal offers a much more lighthearted affair. Housed in an orange sleeve referencing the visual identity of low-budget airliner easyJet, Maps details the ups and downs of life on tour with equal parts wit and candor. The end result is arguably his most accessible work to date, though woods proudly maintains his many idiosyncrasies. “I had a conversation with Aesop Rock, where he said something along the lines of ‘I really fuck with your music, but you should be more on beat,’” he remarks with a smile, collecting his thoughts. “I feel like I am on beat. But it’s a different way.”
To his fans, the abstractions and unpredictably angular flow with which he weaves his tales are part of the attraction. “I think I make challenging, hopefully cutting-edge, art,” woods says. That is certainly the consensus around Aethiopes, the critically acclaimed 2022 album made with producer Preservation that contains many of the songs he performed the night prior in Rotterdam, Europe’s main port city. “[Aethiopes] encapsulates ideas that I think are very interesting,” he says. “Of identity, the idea of Africa, of the other, and what it reveals of the self. The idea of whiteness, which can only exist once you define what other things are, so that you can exist in reference to them. How identities are formed—nobody was Black. I mean, Blackness is a real thing. There are genetic markers that are different for people of African descent. But, at the same time, it’s made up. Nobody was Black, until white people made that up. People weren’t sitting around in Africa thinking they were Black.”
Aethiopes is as much about the mythologizing of Africa as it is about the actual place within our world. “King of all blacks, I eat human hearts,” he satirizes the depiction of Africa by colonial powers in the opening line of “Haarlem.” The song carries the name of the Dutch town from which a New York borough derives its own name, which in turn would become famous for a Black cultural renaissance. Similarly, the album’s title is the ancient Greek name for African people, which in turn became the name of an actual African nation, lionized for never being colonized. “People in the African diaspora have always been told Africa is bad, backwards, you’re lucky to be in the western world,” woods reflects. “That is reclaimed through something like Rastafarianism, which says Africa is our home; [Ethiopia’s former ruler] Haile Selassie was actually the son of God, things that can help you forge a positive identity from the destructive one that was forced on you. But at the same time, you’re creating a talisman, an idea, that is not real. Haile Selassie was the last king in a line of kings, killed by his own people. Many of whom do not have fond memories of him. And Ethiopia is a real country, full of people, many of whom have opinions on other parts of Africa some people might not find favorable. These are all ideas that are complicated.”
Adding another shade is the fact that woods is performing these songs in the Netherlands, a former colonial power, to predominantly white audiences. “I’m aware of it, I think about it,” he says. “Sometimes, it might even weigh into how I perform a song or what emphasis I place in its lyrics. But it’s not something that changes the way I make my art. My first hope is that my art means something to human beings.”
No stranger to questions of identity, woods knows they have long been part of his art: “I’ve been an outsider everywhere I’ve ever lived: Africa, America, Caribbean. When I just moved to the U.S. as a teenager, Black people would tell me, ‘The way you talk isn’t Black.’ And soon you end up in a situation where people convince you that doing well in school is not Black. Answering questions in class is not Black. Using proper grammar is not Black. Once you start down that path, you’ll be in the wilderness. It won’t lead you anywhere but to the bottom. I’m coming from Africa and I’m trying to prove to you that I’m Black? That’s crazy. I’m not going to let anyone tell me what to do, to prove to them what I am.”
Somewhat ironically, that unapologetic embrace of his own idiosyncrasies, actually manages to imbue his work with something accessible. Because it is precisely the kind of emotional honesty that ultimately transcends whatever differences there may be between him and his listeners. As long as someone is willing to do the work, and parse the impressive poetry set to pleasantly avant-garde beats, there can be a connection. And who knows, it might even make you think about your own place within this world. Woods wouldn’t have it any other way. “Your first job is being yourself,” he confidently states. “That is your first job on earth.”