To live in billy woods’s world is to battle the daily problems Phife expressed on “8 Million Stories,” or the “six million ways to die” as discussed by Cutty Ranks (which is also the name of Ranks’s 1996 album). Woods doesn’t dance around the terror of being a Black American citizen; on his new album, Known Unknowns, he wants listeners to feel the burden. Take the hook on “Unstuck” as an example: “Rolled the dice / Fucked around and lost your life / Double or nothing? / It’s only right.” Woods rhymes as though life is the opening scene of The Wire and he’s explaining the American way to Jimmy McNulty. This is the war Prodigy once predicted.
On Known Unknowns, woods presents terror as a common occurrence in places where it’s not supposed to happen. “Entourage exchanging rounds in your gentrified downtown,” he quips on “Superpredator,” a Kool G Rap-influenced track with a kill-or-be-killed aesthetic. There is carnage on this record. The hooks express consequence: death is not a cold-blooded aberration, it’s the daily forecast.
Produced entirely by Blockhead, Known Unknowns is a sobering record, which isn’t surprising given much of woods’s catalogue. And yet, even in its bleakest moments, there’s a concerted effort to be playful on tracks like “Police Came To My Show,” “Groundhogs Day,” and the intro to “Fall Back,” where woods laments his second-class status in a woman’s heart. “Police Came To My Show” dials into a “Funky Dividends” levity, subverting the anti-blue stance in rap: the cops pay the cover price to get in, stay for a while, and dip before his last verse. The song’s hook focuses on the positive aspects of performing a masterful set as feds watch from the crowd. Any good will woods established on “Police” quickly evaporates on the paranoid “Everybody Knows”: “They know who you are!” he howls atop ominous piano chords.
This isn’t the first time woods and Blockhead have teamed up. 2013’s Dour Candy helped elevate woods out of New York’s underground anonymity, and gave Blockhead the foundation to grapple with the rapper’s voluble style. With Known Unknowns, Blockhead embellishes the production—like on “Washington Redskins,” where he blends grungy bass, somber horns, and sampled chants. Elsewhere, Blockhead pairs woods with brooding bass lines presumably lifted from African psych-rock. Think of it as a melting pot of New York rap, an unflinching backdrop for woods’s pithy character sketches.
In fact, psychedelia gestates within the production like a bad trip, while a few delicate melodies attempt to reconcile the terror. Woods is joined by Homeboy Sandman, Aesop Rock, and his other half to Armand Hammer, Elucid, but it’s the vocal samples that compliment his message the most, whether it’s Ghostface’s “my heart is cold like Russia” on “Source Awards,” or the voice of MF DOOM on “Keloid” with the lament “Born alone / Die alone / No matter who your man is.” A solemn way to live, but there’s no escaping the anguish.