billy woods Is Writing Through the Apocalypse: Interview

“I don’t feel like I’m good enough just to be coasting along.”
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billy woods, 2019

billy woods obscures his face, but he does not move in the shadows. The New York rapper is at the forefront of the underground NYC hip-hop movement. Between his duo, Armand Hammer, with fellow New York emcee Elucid, and his string of solo releases dating back to the early and mid-2000s, woods is as upfront as a rapper can get. His writing is crucial to our cultural moment and innately urgent. There’s critical energy to every pen stroke.

This much was evident in his first release of 2019, Hiding Places, produced almost exclusively by the formidable LA beatsmith, Kenny Segal. A wrought and claustrophobic affair, Hiding Places was a look at our dilapidated shelters and childhoods. It peered into woods’ fears and his hilarity. It soundtracked an unprecedented return to the dank hollows and metaphysical cellars that shaped us. At the time, the record was woods’ most open album to date. That is, until Terror Management, releasing October 4, came to pass.

Standing as his second album of the year, Terror Management is equal turns darker and lighter. The writing is far more macabre and emotionally upfront—however fragmented the album may feel. The record plays like a love letter to fear itself, not a mere exploration of the emotion. It’s about the myriad ways the world ends, internally and externally, and how we go on living. Terror Management’s production has an airy and lingering touch. woods weaves himself between drum breaks, skeleton keys, bounding guitar lines, and plucky chords, consuming us in the same way fear does.

The album, too, expertly plays with satire—it mocks us as only billy woods can. For one, Terror Management is about the potential futility of coping. There is no coping mechanism in existence capable of making the pain stop, but we must try. Consider this: The world is underwater. Our government has reached critical mass. Every day there’s something new to laugh at—if only to salve the wound of being an American.

At this point, the question of better and worse naturally arises. As in, is Terror Management a better album than Hiding Places? To that I say: If you’re still asking questions on a binary, you’ve not fully listened to everything billy woods has said. Fuck the binary. Restrictive thinking be damned. We like to think we’ve achieved freedom of thought as a people, but perhaps, as we find on Terror Management, this was our greatest mistake.

My full conversation with billy woods, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

billy woods, 2019

DJBooth: There’s enveloping darkness to Terror Management, but it’s not overwhelming. Talk to me about writing this one.

billy woods: The context for the project was instructive in how I was working on it. When I started, I jumped right into it after Hiding Places, because I had been working on Hiding Places for a long time. Just because of the nature of me and Kenny’s schedules and the nature of our lives that year. It was a tumultuous, little time. Once I finished Hiding Places, I felt like I needed to keep writing. A lot was happening, and I found it very cathartic.

At times, the album feels like a love letter to fear. Is fear healthy? Or, at least, necessary?

Like all things, there are two sides. A person who’s not afraid of anything can be, in some ways, admirable, but is almost certainly a fool. At the same time, it’s a bad thing to live your life from a place of fear. There’s a duality there. Fear is bad and good and necessary. If I meet somebody who’s not scared of anything, I find it worrisome. If you’re asking in terms of writing… Beyond the concept of this record, there’s always a good amount of fear. What if it’s not as good as something I did? What if I don’t have any ideas? Those things are good because it’s good to look at your work critically, but you can’t allow it to overwhelm what you’re doing.

So, you didn’t go into Terror Management worrying if it would be better than Hiding Places?

When we were working on Hiding Places, I felt like it was a good record. I remember discussing it with Steel Tipped Dove. I know when I started [Terror Management], I was cognizant that I wanted to do something different—something better. That was part of the animating purpose. I was well into Terror Management by the time Hiding Places started getting all these accolades—it’s been my most successful record out the gate. At that point, I started to have some fears, but I was far into [Terror Management]. Most of my fears of surpassing my previous records are self-generated anyway. I was working from a space of artistic compulsion, rather than “Oh, there’s all these reviews.” By the time that happened, this project was already in its final stages.

I feel like the conversation of better or worse is pointless at times.

That’s what Steel Tipped Dove says, and I understand and appreciate that perspective. At the same time… It’s a question I ask people. I recognize it’s of limited value, but I am curious to know where people stand on things we share in common. As a driving tool for me, I think it’s important. I appreciate that sense of “Man, it’s gonna be better,” or, “It's gotta be at the very least, working on different levels.” I always wanna be pushing. I don’t feel like I’m good enough just to be coasting along. That’s not how I am.

You also went shorter on this album, similar to 2015’s Today, I Wrote Nothing. Why pursue brevity?

I wanted to nail a sense of fragmentation like life is now. There are so many thoughts ping-ponging around in my head while I’m looking at my phone. Known Unknowns songs were two verses and a hook, the most traditional song structure I’d done. Intentional. Hiding Places was its own chamber. I had these different beats, and I wanted to do different things [on Terror Management]. It was creating this fragmented view of the world and experience. Today, I Wrote Nothing is jumpy in a way I don’t want this to be jumpy. [Terror Management] should be like a picture that’s been smashed.

billy woods Terror Management artwork

So much of Terror Management mocks how we try to cope.

I could see that. It’s funnier than Hiding Places. This runs more of a gamut. Hiding Places is more of a chamber, and [Terror Management] is a whole bunch of things.

Some of your funniest bars land on Terror Management. All of “Western Education is Forbidden” is funny, to the point where you mock us for laughing. Explain the importance of satire to this album.

[Satire] shows up a lot in my work. Two songs were maybe too satirical—too funny—for the record. I don’t know what’s gonna happen with them. Satire is always important in my work. I’d have to think about if it plays a bigger role here, but I’d like to think the album runs through everything. It’s satirical; it’s dead serious at points, it’s allegorical, it’s literal.

On the final song, you have the line “You can’t pay with money,” which pairs with “The money imaginary” off Paraffin. Why the preoccupation with commerce and capitalism?

That’s not the direct target of that statement, although that’s part of the entirety of everything. There are lots of apocalypses in this record, of varying weights and degrees. There’s a decent amount of the album that’s about our world in both the most literal sense and much more figurative ways. Our inner worlds, too. In the end, it’s a summation of the fact that there’s a time coming where money won’t be of any value. Also, a time comes for everybody where the things you have to pay [for], you’re not going to pay with money. It’s an assessment of our physical world and our other world.

Would you say this is your most urgent album? I think of the energy of “Great Fires,” which, to me, is one of your punchiest songs.

That’s an interesting observation: Urgent. I could see the logic there. Although there’s a lot of intensity to History Will Absolve Me, it’s angry. It’s [full of] contempt. I don’t know if it’s urgent and [Terror Management] might be urgent on levels both relating to our actual and inner world and inner terror management. It’s like the symmetry of an individual barreling toward something and the world, collectively, barrelling toward something.

My favorite line lives on that song: “Even good news feels bad.” Why does good news feel bad?

If you’ve ever been in a space or time in your life when things are so dark… Even when you get some good news… You’re having a good time, and that reminds you of the people that are missing, so you end up having a bad time. You know what I mean?

There’s an element of disbelief in that line that speaks to an element of disbelief in the album.

You’re dealing with a narrator who doesn’t have a lot of faith in things. There’s not a lot of sense of community. I would say in this record, any sense of commonality and community with others is constantly undermined.

It brought me back to last October when I was feeling particularly crazy and disconnected from the world.

I’m happy that you got it. I intended Terror Management to be personal, and on another level, there’s a lot of interplay between the interior and the actual world itself.

How does billy woods survive?

Oh, man, case by case basis. Things are never as bad as they seem. They’re usually never as good, either.

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