In April of this year, a conversation between Earl Sweatshirt and the prolific author Ta-Nehisi Coates was published by Interview Magazine in which the two reflected on the idea of a “cultural trust fund.” Sweatshirt explained the upper hand within his writing and cultural knowledge he felt he’d gained through being the son of two influential and intellectual people. His father, Keorapetse Kgostile, being South Africa’s 2006 Poet Laureate, and his mother, Cheryl Harris, a professor at UCLA and a published author. This concept of a cultural trust fund led to a brief tangent between Sweatshirt and Coates when the ingenious and mysterious mind of Billy Woods was brought to the conversation. Ta-Nehisi Coates briefly attended Howard University at the same time that Woods was there, and the two have shared words frequently, despite Woods' elusive nature. What was so striking about this brief distraction in the conversation was Coates’ admitting that Woods’ lyric referencing him on “Western Education is Forbidden,” still had him puzzled to this day. It was striking that two of the most well-spoken and well-read recipients of these cultural trust funds were still left confused by the unflinching pen of Billy Woods. When we dive into Woods’ sparsely documented history, it’s clear to see that he is also in possession of a cultural trust fund, as his father was a PhD holder in Marxist literature and his mother, a Jamaican literature professor. Woods spent a good part of his childhood in Zimbabwe before moving to New York after the death of his father. It is clear from Woods’ discography that his genes and life experiences molded a force to be reckoned with in the modern scene of underground hip hop. His bleak, yet sarcastic and dry delivery elevates his dense writing to a wholly unique level that was demonstrated front and center for fans throughout the course of Woods’ relentless 2022. Today, we will look at Church, Billy Woods’ second release from 2022 which was equally harrowing and bleak as it was angelic and reflective.
Album Art and Title
The cover art and title of Church are a bit less on the nose (given you did some research) than his other tour-de-force this year, Aethiopes. The cover depicts high rise apartment buildings, presumably in New York, from a street level looking up as scaffolding swirls around in a semi-circle across the cover. It gives an aura of imperfection and maybe a jab at gentrification and the rapidly changing nature of the New York streets. Woods’ puts some of the heavy themes of generational trauma, colonialism, and family history from Aethiopes on the back burner for this release (though there are some ties and sequential elements between the two records that we can get to later) to create a much more personal record. He bares his soul and personality on the majority of these tracks which lends itself to a church-like setting. The record feels like a confessional or a rant to whoever will lend an ear. Church was a surprise release in late September and one more notable aspect of the records’ title lies within a tweet Woods made from his Backwoodz Studioz Twitter account 5 days before the album was unleashed. The tweet read: “Piff and Church… Are they different? Feeling like if there isn’t a heavy frankincense smell to it, it’s not Church. But whatever, it’s all still Haze.” This wonderfully cryptic message led many to believe that Woods is preparing a trilogy of sorts, as he capitalizes “Church,” “Piff,” and “Haze,” After all, this album brings the spiritual, religious essence of weed smoke to the front and center of its beauty. As the man of the hour said last year, “Genuflected when I heard the weed price.”
Church hits the common mark for most Billy Woods releases: he covers a wide range of topics and drifts between them with apparent ease and unbridled knowledge. He rails against capitalism, pens odes to the healing nature of marijuana, and reflects on failed love, awkward hospital visits, and lost friends. The project is entirely produced by the captivating Messiah Musik who crafts an eerie soundscape unlike any Billy Woods record prior. The vocal samples he chops up are celestial and hazy as Woods’ tortured flows bounce back and forth amongst the complex and rhythmic drums that Messiah Musik conjures up.
Anyone who has spent some time reading and indulging in Woods’ lyrics has probably noticed his writing technique where he blatantly and dully spits a statement that throws the listener into a specific situation without much context. It’s a difficult technique to describe with my own words, but he opens the album with “Paraquat,” saying, “Spot on 116 must’ve had the cops in they pocket / Hydro jars, fifty a pop, line out the door / This back when we had the nerve to call brickweed chocolate / Stacy and her sister’s boyfriend had the new hot shit.” This is just a guaranteed attention grabber. I know nothing about the spot on 116 yet Woods has convinced me that I must know more. This plays out over a haunting vocal sample as Woods continues to spit venom for the first half of the track. “I’m looking at your city like Jihadis in the cockpit/prices so fuckin’ high had to do em dirty just to make a profit.” At the very end of this opening track, Woods makes a reference to “Haze,” further pushing the idea that his next record could be building off of this one as well as Aethiopes.
This album plays out like a weed-induced rant, filled with humor, spite, and reflection as it plays out and gets to its penultimate moments and finale. Woods bends stoner bars into comedic political commentary, opening “Swampwater,” with the incredible, “Tell your boy I only want the cookie with the red hairs / same ones from when Giuliani was mayor.” a pointed jab at Rudy Giuliani’s hair dye dripping down his face during a speech regarding the 2020 elections (This happened to be the same evening he was disrupted by the filming of a Borat prank). On one of my absolute favorite tracks of this year, “Fever Grass,” Messiah Musik crafts a beat so potent, anything Woods’ could say on it would sound venomous. The warbling horns and woozy drums make love to each while Woods relentlessly delivers bars like, “Win or lose, the Maoists is still glum / Rain blood, we still lit like wet blunts.” Implying that Woods will be absolutely steadfast in the face of biblical horrors as long as he has a zip of some chronic. The second half of this track swoons into a beat switch that still derives from the basis the first beat created as Woods brings in elements from Aethiopes, building continuity between his 2022 records. He dives into family history and African imagery reminiscent of “Wharves,” and “The Doldrums,” from Aethiopes.
Woods seemed to utilize beat switches in the second half of these tracks to continue to build and expand on the harsh realities he pondered within Aethiopes, even going as far as using a variation of the beat from “No Hard Feelings,” on the back half of “Schism,” allowing Bruiser Brigade member Fat Ray to unleash a powerful verse. This became a shocking moment when Woods revealed that not only was “Schism,” a call back, but Messiah Musik and Preservation (producer of Aethiopes) both discovered that sample and made similar beats with it on their own accord; it was not planned. This leads us to believe Billy Woods’ cinematic universe is meant to be and we should just let the man cook!
Woods is joined by fellow Backwoodz members Akai Solo and Fielded (who is living proof that mythological sirens may indeed exist) on the astoundingly eerie cut, “Classical Music,” where Akai opens the track spitting riddles describing loss of innocence and inserting yet another reference to, “Haze.” Woods comes in on this track to deliver one of my favorite verses on the record simply due to how poetic and illustrious his writing shines through. He tells a brief four bar story in the middle of the verse detailing a spiritual experience he had during a piano lesson and closes out his verse with this stark juxtaposition, “Spanish galleon, I was in the sunken place / Pieces of eight strewn on the ocean floor / Police rushed the gate / Flushed everything, couldn’t bring myself to flush the Haze (I threw it out the window on God!)” This imagery developed through a sunken Spanish colonial ship and Woods’ sunken mindset mirrored against a modern tale of police house raids and flushing, or sinking, the work down the toilet is an astounding demonstration of the punch Woods can pack in a simple four bars.
It lies within Woods’ nature to load his emotional baggage and most soul ripping beats into the final stages of his records. We saw it on Aethiopes with the melancholic one-two combo of “Smith+Cross,” and “Remorseless,” and we receive another batch of mind-bending, crushing content at the final stages of Church, with “Pollo Rico,” and “All Jokes Aside.”
I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure out of visualizing and trying to gain an understanding of “Pollo Rico.” It seems to be a deeply personal tale that Woods holds close to his chest. The emotion in the lyrics is amplified by the howling vocal sample courtesy of Messiah Musik layered over some sporadic, off kilter drums. The two verses on this track see Woods working through very different thought processes yet there is a clear connection between the two, which seems to be Woods feeling hopeless and misconstrued. In the first verse, Woods reflects on his failure within a loving relationship as he felt himself change and become more distant from who he was at the start, aptly describing it as, “My character arc… Rolling Loud to Shakespeare in the Park.” perhaps implying the excitement he originally experienced eventually dwindled to a more individual human need for solitude and literary studies. Going forward, the second verse of this track sees Woods returning to somber reflections of his family history in Africa with similar apprehension and reflections on abandonment as he approached his dying relationship’s story. “The ones who bust they guns went home to tin cups of tea and the same plate of porridge / Wake up thinking about the ones they left in the forest / It's no church in the wild / My uncle said you can’t bury that many bodies, they burned em in piles.” I could quote this whole verse because it is very harrowing and ends in more multi-layered bars that I could spend entire pages breaking down.
“All Jokes Aside,” maybe my favorite track on this record. I have a very visceral listening experience nearly every time the song comes on as I listen to this album. It’s been established that piff and haze are two words that Woods is consistently circling around to reference weed throughout this record, but the hook of “All Jokes Aside,” confirms that Woods is also treating the word church as a direct reference to it as well. “All jokes aside, I enjoyed the ride, I miss my guys, took the church and put it in the sky.” Woods' affection towards weed is tangible on this record and he isn’t treating it like Wiz Khalifa or Snoop Dogg, but rather as the church that is helping him heal from the brutality, fear, and pain he penned out and unleashed on Aethiopes. The second verse of this track is dense and painful, Woods seems to be reflecting on loss once again, creating a somber image in the listener's head of letting go and moving on. “Good times never seemed so until it’s goodbye / Waving on the runway walking backwards / Cloudless sky, the sun in the back of us.” These are the initial thoughts when fully facing the loss of someone. It feels like the sun is behind you and may never be shining in your face again. You begin to overthink and discover your faults, “You can’t win em all but I’m sorry for the hurt I caused / FedEx packages lost, never sign no forms / If she’s gone, she’s gone / Came outside after the locusts swarmed (She’s gone)” You can hear the grief in Woods’ voice as he utters these final bars of the track.
Woods’ final verse on the album on “Magdalene,” plays out a grim story despite the soaring and energetic beat from Messiah Musik. Woods tells a tale of his lost love, driving all night, wishing he still smoked cigarettes, getting ghosted on the drive over to see the woman, and at the end of the verse he commits suicide by driving his car off a bridge into a river. It’s a common tale of the pain that comes with love and the questions that arise surrounding if any of it was even worth it in the first place.
It goes without saying that this is an incredibly dense album and I tried my best to be concise and make strong points surrounding the content and ingenuity within the production choices and writing. It was hard for me to come up with any true criticism for this piece of art as it is truly something that will impact each listener differently. The beauty of Woods’ music lies in its cryptic nature as you can pull the lyrics that really hit you and sit with them, as well as take the ones that you can’t quite wrap your head around and ponder them to your heart’s content. The production across this album is much more accessible to an untrained ear than what you will find on Aethiopes so even if you decide to just listen to the beats and the flows, Church is still a pleasure to listen to.
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