Let it be noted that this Billy Woods album caught me totally by surprise…and on multiple levels. Truthfully, it shouldn’t have been a complete shock, as he has been around for a while as a part of projects such as The Reavers, Super Chron Flight Brothers and a few solo projects previous to this. I had either been aware or heard some stuff from those two group projects, but, I honestly didn’t really remember his name specifically and nothing that I recall from either groups gave me any indication that an album as interesting and entertaining as “History Will Absolve Me” would be eventually on the way.
I first started to hear mention of this “History Will Absolve Me” in my solicitation emails from Traffic Entertainment announcing the album was coming out. The cover is relatively plain, but still engaging and the album title builds intrigue. However, I didn’t have any info about it. I first thought it was a rare re-released Soul record from the 70s. Then after I saw a list of some the features; Masai Bey, Roc Marciano, Vordul Mega (Of Cannibal Ox), then I thought it might be one of those new soul or electronic Hip Hop hybrid album that is so popular these days. In other words, I continued to guess wrong about what it really was…a excitingHip Hop record from an experienced MC, who is well in tune with the sonics of today.
Luckily, I was intrigued enough by the artwork, album title and a Masai Bey feature that I decided to pick it up. I put it to the side for a week or so and then finally took some time to give it a listen. This was during one of my regular listening days, where I go thru stacks of new music and only give things a quick listen unless they really hold my attention…things usually don’t. On the first track, “A Mis Enemigos [High Tide]” my brain kept telling my hand to go to the skip track button*. The beat was sort of interesting but lacking any real flair (mind you, the producer here, Marmaduke, later makes some solid contributions to the album) and his flow was rather awkward. He had this vocal presence and attitude that sounds appropriately in line with the type of Rappers that are popular today, but his voice was engaging and he seemed to be hinting at some interesting topics, but not quite fully tapping into them. As track one started to fade away I recall wondering if this was going to be one of those albums that continues to sound interesting, but never quite makes the statement that it seems to be capable of…
That quick rush to judgment was completely eradicated by the next song, “Crocodile Tears”. The beat is busy and appropriately chaotic, building a suitable foundation for the intensity of Billy Woods verbal onslaught. He immediately comes in with a blistering description and criticism of tuff talking MCs, “32 bars of how to rob and kill your neighbors/And still got the nerve to ask God to save ya”. He later ends that verse with a Incredible Hulk TV reference laced with layered meaning, “See of Green under rays gamma/Stunner shades Ray Banner/You will like me when I’m angry, I got plenty of home training and manners.” The chorus nails the message, “Bring the champagne when I’m thirsty/Bring the reefer when I want to get high/Lord have mercy, hope that you heard me/Y’all can’t hurt me, I been feeling like this a long time!” The remainder of the album has many noteworthy moments, but none quite capture all that is great about this project; musically, lyrically and conceptually, better than “Crocodile Tears”.
Largely this album is active in confronting racism. It travels back in time to face slavery head-on. Then thru out the album he challenges the transformations and after-effects that evolved from that, particularly the long-lasting, still-existing psychological effects it had on the lineage of the oppressed. With that in mind, it seems to be a safe assumption that all his words aren’t to be received as first person narratives. He’s bringing various characters and their affected mental states to life. His written sentiments may or may not reflect his personal thoughts and/or actions, but were drafted to impact with powerful, sometimes repulsive, and poignant grim realities. Case in point, the opening to “Bill Cosby”, “I’m get tired of ni**as talkin’ about the good ol’ days when they still owed me money/Laughin’ at my bosses jokes when ain’t a damn thing funny/Honey, I’m home! Whiskey in tummy, recliner feels like a throne/40 years old negro Al Bundy clone renting three bedrooms in the colored section/Three kids and not a day goes by I don’t wish I used protection…” he goes on paint some additional images that are quite disturbing, but they hold your attention like a deadly car crash, even if you turn away that one eye is still sneaking a peek to see/hear what happens next…
“Headband” is among the most abstract productions on a rather abstract produced album. Billy Woods style here is more rapid-fire, scattered thought, as he slips in a lot of double-meanings, hidden messages and things of the sort. One thing that jumps out at you is his proclamation, “Pen game equivalent to Thomas Paine/Pen name the ambivalent Mark Twin, Intelligent Gucci Mane/Scholarship student, financial aid reduction made 3.5 the ideal unit/Face disguised, ’72 Olympics in Munich…”
“DMCA” takes a hard look at the present day music industry and how one can try to navigate thru or even completely submit to it, while simultaneously presenting another side of modern slavery tactics, “Sound asleep under high thread count sheets/It’s a whole ‘nother world in these first class seats/Ringtones on phones and video game licensing fees/I don’t know how much, but got some educated feets/Gladly buckdance and show teeth/For that kind of paper? Goddamn right I’ll sign the release!” Perhaps the most fierce moment comes in the second verse, “We only here cause some crackers ain’t wanna pay tax on they Earl Grey/but see nothing wrong with owning slaves/So f**k a sample, I don’t gots to pay, when I take your s**t, that’s the American way/Downpour torrential, Torrents have your whole album and instrumentals/It’s like writing a novel in pencil…”
“Duck Hunt” uses video games as a medium to discuss some deeper topics. The beat [Produced by A.M. Breakups] has a outer-wordly moodiness to it. It’s chock full of quote-worthy material, but this is most likely the highlight, “Rap like a simpleton, see new tax bracket/So-called goons, turns out their schools was magnet/Masters of masquerade masked up, all the worlds a stage, director’s cut…”
There are an abundance of scathing quotes that either hit like an unexpected punch to the gut or either ring with a certain air of familiarity, but he twists it just enough to make it sound refreshing, “I break up trees on your 4th generation imitation Premier beats, that’s definitely not the flavor/And trust me, you not doing the 90s no favor!” (from “Nigerian Email”) or “Increase the ExxonMobil concession and send our militias more weapons/Purge the unions, assassinate the students, but keep promising election!” (from “Pump Up The Volume”). A CD purchase allows you to maximize this experience with all the printed lyrics included in the 20-page booklet, each filled with recognizable figures from thru out history.
I alluded to this earlier, but I wanted to elaborate. There’s some certain qualities in Billy Woods approach, attitude, shock value, and hardcore element with an abstract touch, that would potential appeal to the young Hip Hop fans who are followers of current hot artists. They are definitely not simply alike in general terms. I’m speaking specifically about a certain vocal approach. In terms of topics and flow, Billy Woods rhymes far around them just as much as he does in-between them. Essentially, he’s covering a lot of ground, but without it being distracting. In fact, within that idea rest some roots to the power of this album. “History Will Absolve Me” grabbed hold of my attention, pulls me further in with each new listen, has me quite curious about checking out his two previous solo albums and definitely has me on alert for any future musical innovations.
Written By Kevin Beacham
*Only fair to mention that once I went and actually read the lyrics to “A Mis Enemigos” I gained a new fascination with the song, leading to a required re-listening and then a renewed appreciation. I think the vibe they were going for in the beat is right, but the beat itself still is lacking some character...for whatever that is worth.