With Hiding Places, Billy Woods cements himself as one of the greatest lyricists hip-hop has ever seen. I rarely front-load my reviews with such bold claims but Billy's not one to sing his own praises. A shadowy stalwart of New York's underground whose prolific 2000s group output went largely unnoticed, Woods returned his focus to solo albums with 2012's phenomenal History Will Absolve Me.
In the years that followed, fans have been treated to an entire novel's worth of cryptic yet confrontational street poetry, suggesting a grand narrative that's almost intangible. Billy's verses read like scattered fragments of a diary, recurring esoteric references and a pitch black sense of humour helping to connect the dots.
But let's first talk about how he raps. Woods' vocal style is best compared to the impassioned sermons of a street preacher. Each line is effortlessly quotable, shouted into the air without stopping to consider if anyone is even listening. This matter-of-fact attitude is subdued slightly on Hiding Places, with tracks like A Day In A Week In A Year delving further into Billy's introverted side. What these cuts sacrifice in intensity is redeemed tenfold in emotional weight, mining pessimism into intense personal confessions atop beats sounding like an anxiety attack.
Woods' production has previously been handled by New York mainstays like Blockhead and Willie Green, but here it comes courtesy of LA beatsmith Kenny Segal. Perhaps reflective of his city, Segal's beats are far more spacious than their New York counterparts. Sparsity that doesn't just give Billy incredible freedom from a technical perspective, but an emotional one as well: acting as a canvas ready to reinforce the colourful nuance found in his every verse.
From Checkpoints' fuzzy psych rock to the claustrophobic Spider Hole, each instrumental brings an atmosphere and personality all of its own. Yet Kenny does this all without ever leaving the back seat, subtly framing Woods' tangled lyrical web and making for his most sonically cohesive project to date.
Though it might also be his most depressing. Billy's subject matter is as confronting as ever, namedropping forgotten African wars in every second song and even recounting a rejected medical insurance claim opened in front of family.
Bedtime moves further into absurdist fiction with two seperate Twilight Zone-esque verses detailing scenarios where the world's adults disappear and every murdered woman comes back to life for revenge. It's a lot to take in.
Admittedly there's an underlying thread of dry wit beneath all this, but Billy's knack for poetic imagery makes for some seriously affecting moments. As on Woods' past projects, Hiding Places is brimming with brief vignettes: self-contained stories told with just a few lines. I could quote these all day, but the aforementioned A Day In A Week In A Year features one of the most evocative.
"An army of fiends, she put chrysanthemums and daffodils in the burnt end of they crack stems/
Tears stream down they cheeks, just really really weep/
But in the end/They hit-They hit the pipe again"Strange detours like these are a staple of Woods' writing. What first seems like an odd tangent is often deeply intentional, embellishing the broader subject without referencing it directly.
It's this ability to balance scattershot narrative approach with unmatched thematic depth that keeps Billy's verses simmering on the backburner of my mind for weeks at a time. He's truly a master of isolating context without losing sight of the bigger picture, allowing for songs which embody conscious, political, and hardcore rap without falling prey to any one set of tropes.
Hiding Places isn't an easy album to listen to, and an even harder one to appreciate, but if you're looking for testament that hip-hop can still be poetry then passing it by would be a grave mistake.