billy woods & Messiah Musik – Church (Review)

There’s something communal about smoking together; On fire escapes and stoops as cars and trains whiz by, shouts and shots in the distance, you pass it around in a uniting, daily ritual. It brings ease despite the bustle, pain, and worry surrounding. It’s therapy; it’s a placebo; it’s church.

On his second release of the year, the ever enigmatic and contemplative Billy Woods blesses us with a sermon of sativas and suffering. Fully produced by Messiah Musik (notable for his previous work with Armand Hammer and this year’s phenomenal Second Hand Accounts with Bloodmoney Perez), Church is a desolate tour through time and neighborhood alike, exploring the collapse of individuals, communities, and the methods by which we survive it all.

All jokes aside, I enjoyed the ride
I miss my guys, took the church and put it in the sky

Where the lauded Aethiopes brought a new degree of conceptuality to Woods’ music, Church reels that in to a more personal, emotional level. Not to say that the themes of colonialism and cultural erasure didn’t hit home, but this is far smaller in scale. Take “Classical Music”, where Woods shares a moment of his youth over ghostly piano keys; lamenting a lack of commitment and discipline, he falls to less productive habits than he deserved for himself.

“Fever Grass” paints the family home of Woods – if not many others – as one of starvation, both physical and aspirational. While the second verse does delude into more traditional African imagery, the skeletal, off kilter percussion remains to drive a feeling of entrapment, scraping and clawing for anything.

Over all of Church looms a tonal haze, supplemented by frequent references to marijuana. From the jump with “Paraquat”, smoking is presented as a simple fact of life that comes with such struggles. While cleverly describing his high, there prevails a feeling of stagnation with it. While marijuana might be church (“I found religion, I’m a prophet”), churches exist outside of life and time; They’re liminal spaces, with the exact traditions and goals of generations past. They bring peace of mind to the faithful, but no real, tangible solutions. Smoking, while therapeutic and shared among its close congregants, only sinks Woods deeper in dejection.

Billy Woods & Messiah Musik – “Pollo Rico”

Outside that standstill ceremony, the world keeps turning. As Woods’ community continues its vicious cycle of unfulfillment, he goes so far as to compare it to Chernobyl as a thriving, yet corrupted wilderness on “Cossack Wedding”. Church is a tonal wasteland; from Messiah’s swirling mix of muted horns and tinny drums that create a suffocating atmosphere on tracks like “Swampwater”, to a density of allusions that would leave T.S. Elliot himself inspired. Literary references from Woods contrast with his unambitious surroundings (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Solzhenitsyn, she skipped to the end”), furthering the feeling of those with great potential held back by social stratification and thus, in many cases, self medication.

Assists from Backwoodz affiliates Akai Solo, Fielded, and of course Elucid round Church out nicely. As with any Billy Woods album, there is an intimidating complexity and mysticism to it that could never be satisfactorily explained; The sheer emotion and humanism displayed on here makes it one of his best, most approachable efforts though. Whatever political or spiritual tales he paints into such a mosaic allocution, they always exude knowledge and passion, yet with Church is as desolate and clouded as his own home.

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