words by emily reily
For all of Billy Woods’ efforts raising awareness of social issues through his music, this style of conscious hip-hop may not reach the status that more “mainstream” rap acts enjoy. Despite that, Known Unknowns, Woods’ sixth solo album, comes pretty close to being a masterful hip hop tome detailing blind commercial culture and its frustratingly real-life opposite.
Woods’ stream-of-consciousness in Known Unknowns’ lyrics link economic inequality and crime with drug use and drug deals, the ever-present gun on every street corner, and people who want to make life better, with white supremacy that looms over it all. The album immerses the listener in gritty street visions as he paints visual snapshots of Chinese takeout to all-white beaches, and strip clubs and peep shows.
With hip hop records, words come much faster than the listener can process. When you do compute the message, there are still lyrical double meanings to solve. Known Unknowns is one of those dense albums with scads of clever wordplay. Woods’ vocal rhythms are not parallel; rather, they flit from thought to thought, with rhymes coming in and out naturally, almost without effort. Everything seems to snap into place.
Woods also deftly and consistently slots in culture references with seemingly unrelated things. A brief, random list of the dozens of shout-outs: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Last Picture Show, and Point Break; Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Crispus Attucks, Fonzie, Jay Z and a veiled callout to Jackson Brown.
The opener, “Bush League,” blasts you into the record, with woods spitting bitter fire on police brutality and corruption. From the first line, Woods is already looking for human shelter from potential gunshots. “Unstuck” incorporates calming sound bites from a scientist about the vast universe and its unfathomable age, with light clicks and soft synths that play around the melody. Later, the scientist warns about “dangerous evolutionary baggage.” These sound bites offer more than just extra noise and material. They boil down his floating, abstract narrative and condense it into simple statements we can understand.
Even song titles, like the funky-hooked “Cheap Shoes,” are only randomly mentioned in the lyrics, as if hiding in plain sight. They’re often utilized as a punch line rather than a title or moral. But the chorus to that song, delivered emphatically, is a killer: “Wrinkled dress shirts at work/Three-quarter length jorts in court/Secondhand suicide vests/Fresh bomb threats locally sourced.”
Some songs, like “Police Came To My Show” and “Fallback” could lyrically benefit from more substance than repetition, and “Robespierre” regurgitates the well-worn Nirvana “Come As You Are” chorus, but the reference seemed forced.
Towards the end of the album, Woods seems to show fatigue, perhaps losing hope for the culture. “You won’t get no answers, not for the stuff that keeps you up,” he says in “Keloid.”
“I am who I pretend to be,” Woods finally declares on “Robespierre,” but it doesn’t lead the listener to any happy conclusion. It just sends us back to song one to figure out whether he’s hidden any answers to the universe, or if we need to just get off our asses and find out why the world is broken. My guess is he wants us to do the latter.
‘Known Unknowns’ is out now