Since his early work, billy woods’ music, flow and overall persona have felt like an abstract outgrowth of New York hip-hop’s emergent underground of the late 2000s. Woods’ 2012 solo album History Will Absolve Me was a clear breakout moment that tightened and refined his experimentation with arcane lyrics and beat selection. His back-to-back albums with Elucid as the duo Armand Hammer (last year’s excellent Haram and 2020’s Shrines) generated some much-deserved hype and graced many best of the year list, including ours. Now Aethiopes, woods’ first album since 2019’s Hiding Places and Terror Management, is another masterclass that continues to push the boundaries of his art.
Woods has a lot to say on Aethiopes and I’ll admit I’m not even close to deciphering all of it yet. Billy woods has always rapped with unbreakable forward movement—flowing in long sentences, never dwelling too long on any syllable—that lends itself well to storytelling. Take “Protoevangelium” for example; on this song, woods takes us through a drug-fueled night in Chinatown with his friends, all while never breaking stride. The track paints a vivid picture of an incredible party that’s built on imagery and storytelling.
Woods definitely in his own lane and Aethiopes is exactly the kind of album that billy woods fans have come to expect — showcasing obscure lyrics peppered with references that make sense only after repeated listens, among a slew of other mind-bending elements enveloped in layers of production by a fellow iconoclast, producer Preservation.
The beats on Aethiopes perfectly complement woods claustrophobic flow. Preservation (known for his work with rappers like Yasiin Bey and Ka) lets loose with some of his best work yet, conjuring richly layered beats that are hallucinatory and off kilter, dusty loops and odd time signatures that create a ethereal atmosphere. The beats are tough and at times chaotic, yet some of its most memorable moments come courtesy of soft instrumentation and psychedelic ambience.
Aethiopes is also almost a tale of two albums, and the contrast between the its two halves couldn’t be more pronounced. The first section is ascetic, minimalist and restrained, with a few songs driven by just a single drum beat, or no drums at all. The second half is as defiantly maximalist as anything on Horses and all its successors: tracks like “Remorseless” incorporate multiple samples, vocal lines, and textural flourishes, while “Smith + Cross” concludes the proceedings with the album’s biggest boom bap sample yet.
Album guests augment Preservation’s beats, with stellar cameos cropping up – EL-P and Breeze Brewin trading bars with woods on “Heavy Water,” Boldy James and Gabe ‘Nandez bringing their sinister swagger to “Sauvage,” and Fatboi Sharif unleashing his unorthodox flow on “Haarlem.”
As a whole, Aethiopes is an intricately layered masterpiece that rewards multiple listens to uncover all of its clever quirks and high-concept moments. It’s also far and away the best rap album of 2022 so far.