Rating: 4/5The cover of Billy Woods’ new album History Will Absolve Me is among the most provocative of any genre’s this year. A close-up of Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe paired with one of Fidel Castro’s most infamous quotes, the imagery is too potent to ignore, but much more subtle than Woods’ standard political rap contemporaries. Despite this, to relegate Woods or his album to merely the political rap sub-genre would be a grave mistake. He isn’t an activist, he’s active. Instead, like all great album arts, History Will Absolve Me’s only hints at the unflinching storytelling and confrontational cynicism heard within. It’s one of the best rap albums I’ve heard this year.
In a post-Definitive Jux world, the term “prog-rap” has been used to both celebrate the more inventive niche East Coast artists (the Uncommon Records roster who assemble much of the lauded annual Yule Prog showcases) as well as write off the countless messageboard-frequenting “I don’t make rap, I make real underground hip-hop” types who think rapping without being shackled by the conventions of rhyming or rhythm somehow makes them deep. Not unlike “prog rock” or “prog-” anything, it’s the most mixed of mixed bags, but when done right can make for one of the most refreshingly unique and ultimately satisfying listens. Woods is indicative of the latter.
That’s not to say Woods, formerly one-half of Super Chron Flight Brothers, is reinventing the wheel entirely on History Will Absolve Me. Rather he’s forging his own path by being just a little bit different in terms of his execution. He may sound jarring at first, as his lines occasionally go a bit over or under the standard rap bar parameters, but Woods’ conviction always affirms that he’s doing it for a very specific reason that’s almost Kubrickian in its resolve. He has an understanding of the standard rap conventions that he’s rooted in enough to have a level of mastery and, therefore, freedom with his word placement while still maintaining control the entire time. While his flow’s an acquired taste that can seem as challenging as E-40’s at first, a few listens reveal the same level of perfection in its tight execution.
But while the flow might take a few turns to truly appreciate, Woods’ abilities as a writer are clear right off the bat. His wordplay, perspective and charisma have made History Will Absolve Me an album that’s hard to put down. While he raps with a commanding assertiveness, what gives the record such replay value is an outstanding level of subtlety. On the Marmaduke produced “Ca$h 4 Gold” he deconstructs the strip club experience, weaving the titles of titles of songs in the dancers’ line-up into his verse seamlessly. Elsewhere, his references aren’t mere “I’m ______ like _______” similes that nostalgia-baiting rap blog darlings’ audiences are accustomed to, but strategically placed nods that go wholly undetected by those not familiar. It’s the best elements of rap wordplay’s potential for exclusion and inclusion at the same time.
It also helps that Woods’ ear for beats rivals the best in rap today. Along with a strong line-up of some of the underground’s finest in Willie Green, A.M. Breakups and NASA bringing their absolute A-game, the songs are assembled in a manner that not only makes History Will Absolve Me feel like an actual cohesive album, but the one that fans of the analog underground warmth of Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein have been waiting over a decade for. From the stage-setting foreboding opening of “A Mis Enemigos (High Tide)” and the dystopian crunch of “Crocodile Tears” through the incredibly strong sequence of “Pompeii,” “Duck Hunt,” “Nigerian Email” and “Pump Up the Volume,” (all from different producers) it’s a perfect union of beats and rhymes. Even the seemingly lighter moments like the Green produced “Bill Cosby” alleviate the pressure while keeping Woods’ snark-free sarcasm in firm control of the ship.
Whether you’ll agree with Woods’ perspective is largely irrelevant when compared to what an undeniably amazing performance he puts on. He also brings the best out of guests like “prog rap” pioneer Masai Bey and the outstanding Roc Marciano on “Body of Work.” Combining his knack for knowing which beats he sounds good on and which guests sound great with him, History Will Absolve Me is a perfect storm of underground hip-hop and a one-of-a-kind listening experience that will be the new standard for alternative East Coast indie excellence.