billy woods knows how to make me feel like the smartest and the most ignorant person in the room, at the same time. On his latest album, Known Unknowns, he stands alongside the listener and explores performance, identity, and their combustible intersections.
Known Unknowns sounds like the product of a round-table between billy woods and his ten biggest fans. Characteristically brighter than his previous album, Today, I Wrote Nothing, the project knots around moral quandaries with a new ease for woods. The record is not cautious in dealing with its paradoxes, but that doesn’t mean the album is too on-the-nose to be enjoyable. It’s time to stop sleeping and let this record subtly siphon the wind out of you.
Starting with the production, Blockhead has cracked woods’ heavily encrypted code, making a pack of beats that coil around woods’ enigmatic spitting without choking him. With the exception of “Bush League” and “Cheap Shoes,” which were produced by Aesop Rock, this is a Blockhead record through and through. Every detail, down to the final crunches of a drum loop or the vibrato-space of a string melody, are made with the askew billy woods flow in mind. Take the way woods skates over the vocal sample on “Groundhogs Day” as the prime example of a track that could have become too busy, but instead actualizes as an engaging gaze out of woods’ window. “Unstuck” might be one of the greatest pieces of evidence in defense of the single-producer record. The pinpricks of color on the production create new pockets for woods to land his bars, and add an even more compelling syncopation to his flow. As a result, we get billy woods raps that are as silky as they are perforated.
Chemistry extends to the features on this album. It’s no secret that billy woods and ELUCID are a bruiser duo —their collaborations as Armand Hammer are not to be missed— but additional appearances by Aesop Rock, Homeboy Sandman, Googie, and Barrie McLain are marked by an unspoken camaraderie. The frenetic posse cut, “Wonderful,” brings a fresh dynamic to the record for that very reason. As all of the features are well paced, the album enjoys a few textured moments of levity, keeping woods’ Faulkner-esque tracks from becoming too weighty.
Music and guests aside, we have to talk theme. “Everybody Knows” is a curious and restless exploration of identity. It’s the anti-hero of title tracks. Dichotomies twist up the cut until they double-helix into the foundation of the record. woods anxiously shifts between paranoia (“they know who you are man, they know who you are”) and desperate defensiveness (“you don’t know woods like that”). To take these bars as plain statements would be a disservice to the record, because they are the album’s central questions: who knows who billy woods is, who doesn’t, who can? Of course, we also have to wonder, who is doing the asking and who has the answers. As the title would imply, the answer lies in knowing there is no answer.
Do we assume billy woods is asking the listener these questions? Partly. Moving through the record, it becomes clear that while the words are aimed at the listeners, billy woods is using us as a filter to talk to himself. His jogging between identities on the final track, “Robespierre” is a dead giveaway: “I am who I pretend to be,” and to close the song “I’m not who I pretend to be.” As it turns out, the journey of the album is billy woods arriving at himself, with a dearth of answers. It is the absence of movement, but not the absence of progress. The catharsis of this album lies within the unknowns becoming their own closure. The questions do not become the answers, but billy woods uses Known Unknowns to make peace with that.
A billy woods record storms your ear while lapping at your psyche, it lingers and clings to you like smoke in your hair. This album silently works its way into your memory, with certain lines coloring your day, leaving you wondering for one moment and satisfied for the ones that follow. To say that Known Unknowns is woods’ magnum opus would be unfair, because I like to imagine that the very, very best is still to come. In the meantime, I can walk away from this record with the known, known that it is woods’ best project to date.
You can pick up this project on CD, digital, or on vinyl from Backwoodz Studioz.