Billy Woods & DJ Preservation – Aethiopes (Review)

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At this point, Billy Woods has amassed such a large, diverse, and quality discography that it’s getting difficult not to place him among the greats. From the vague vignettes of Today I Wrote Nothing, to the lively Known Unknowns or the introspective Hiding Places, and an always improving Armand Hammer catalog, he is able to tackle a range of issues from so many different angles. In that respect, Aethiopes should come as no surprise; Linking with DJ Preservation, Woods brings his most atmospheric project yet for some grand themes.

The first thing to note about this album is the production. Preservation, perhaps best known for his work with Ka on Days With Dr. Yen Lo or Yasiin Bey’s The Ecstatic, has a unique brand of highly immersive, exotic beats. Often light on drums, he takes us on a trip down the Nile here with a truly cohesive soundscape. Every song bleeds together perfectly and is a thematic match for what Woods is discussing on this album.

African Queen on the ships deck
Shipwrecked Europeans swimming with the virus
Shot out like God’s semen
“Fuck the world”, Pac screamin

As we all know, nothing is easy when it comes to Billy Woods; Aethiopes is rife with all of the obscure media references, allegory, and deep, personal symbolism that makes him so unique. His message on this album is perhaps not so easily summed up. This is not a gentrification or culture vulture album a la Skyzoo; Rather it seems to be an exploration of Africa, blackness, everything which has been taken from them, and how that exploitation and diminishment continues today. It is a grand, broad stroke of issues spanning centuries and continents, which Woods is able to translate to his own everyday experiences.

The album opens with “Asylum”, a truly unique account of living next door to former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam’s compound after he had abandoned his country. This observation of an infamous despot living in isolated luxury makes for a fascinating contrast to the unrest of Africa and Woods’ own home. “No Hard Feelings” is one of the more interesting songs here as Preservation’s minimal, yet hard hitting horns make way for Woods most emotional delivery on the whole album.

The next song “Wharves” includes some chilling imagery as Woods describes an African village from a colonizer’s Orientalized, stereotyped perspective. Villagers are portrayed as savage cannibals within an intimidating land reminiscent of Heart of Darkness. Boldy James makes a stellar, unexpected appearance on “Sauvage”, sounding colder than ever and bringing that special brand of street introspection.

Implored the bitch to be sensible
The slave master’s children all looked identical
True, the future is children, but whatever future you building alrеady look miserable
Natural beauty, Savagе Fenty, we strip mined the minerals

“Doldrums” features one of the more fascinating hooks on the album as Woods expresses a need for preparedness – connecting dressing for the weather to staying on top of the game and remaining militant. The first verse of “NYNEX” is short, but among Woods’ hardest hitting ever. Painting a bleak look at a future in modern colonial terms, he warns that we have already been on this path for far too long given corporate exploitation of Africa, white privilege, and culture vulturing. “NYNEX” also features frequent collaborators Elucid, Denmark Vessey, and a high energy verse from Quelle Chris as we await his new album Deathfame.

The song “Christine” is another standout. Woods explores different events and tragedies in his life tied to cars through homage to Stephen King, Bob Marley, and the Jamaican legend of a mobile coffin as a harbinger of death. “Heavy Water” is a love letter to fans of the early 2000’s backpack scene. With those rolling, upbeat flows, bars are traded between Woods, Breeze Brewin, and El-P who has some cool punch in’s at the end of his lines. Woods’ last verse here is another heavy hitter, playing on record execs who don’t understand hiphop culture, the theft of valuable cultural relics, and a Shakespearean tragedy at Bad Boy.

The gorilla severed every inoculated, limb left em with stubs
Ziggurats on the Nile, bought the house and tore it down
All your yesterdays in one neat pile

Woods brings an impressive rhyme scheme and flow on “Versailles” while speaking on corporatism and its inherent racial implications (later rapping, “Spare me your Hallmark Karl Marx”), while Despot makes a rare, killer appearance. These themes bleed into “Protoevangelium” and “Remorseless” where he raps about privilege by wealth and inheritance, pimping the culture, and hints of regret.

The closer “Smith + Cross” is a cathartic outro, painting the picture of how Woods’ culture is left today. With imagery of Assata Shakur liberated and black men suffering in addiction while seeing their own history on display, it is a powerful look at the path from prosperity to invasion to marginalization.

As with any Billy Woods project, it is impossible to fully breakdown or understand what he’s presenting to us. With Aethiopes however, you have to really appreciate how he has translated the topic of historical African portrayals and exploitation to modern issues in such artful terms. DJ Preservation – who we would love to hear more from – laced him with the perfect atmosphere and gave Billy Woods all the tools for another masterpiece.

Listen to Aethiopes on Spotify

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