billy woods Takes Us to “Church”

Photo by Vicente Villasenor

Andy Knox

Arts & Entertainment Editor

While his 2022 masterpiece Aethiopes is still fresh, the top-notch abstract rapper Billy Woods’ (stylized as billy woods) Church is a bleak look at life, religion, and marijuana. After his previous album’s positive critical reception brought him more attention than ever before, woods’ decision to release this album with absolutely no promotion is an indication of his confidence and satisfaction within his own niche. 

DJ Preservation’s extremely detailed production on Aethiopes sets a high precedent for a new woods project. Producer Messiah Musik’s beats always contribute powerfully to the feeling of the song, perfectly complementing the tone in woods’ lyrics and his voice. 

The sounds of bouncing springs in the background under a looped sorrowful angelic cry and a single sharpening synth chord on “Paraquat” add thunderous, echoey horror to woods’ dramatic retellings of events in his youth. The whimsical but depressed saxophone riff over the similarly-toned piano and upright bass add to the feeling of being fed up with the banal trials of life woods so loves to communicate. 

That feeling of simply being done as a human is constantly present throughout the album. The wimpy wah-wah muted trumpet and delayed drums on “Fever Grass” add to the feeling of dark filth and chaos in the lyrics. 

Wont to turn on a dime between personal experiences and history, the first verse’s opening, “House of hunger / Cold stove / It’s madness in the cupboards / It’s no table manners at ya cousin’s / It’s humming microwave ovens,” contrasted with “Deng Xiaoping, dead dogs dangle from lamppost / Long tongues / Win or lose, the Maoists is still glum / Rain blood, we still lit like wet blunts” amount to core woods. The common theme here is bleakness. 

The gloom is never-ending; it just shifts its form. Even on “Schism,” the only track where woods flexes, the tone in his voice communicates more bitterness and angry laughter than comfortable confidence. The beat switch, replacing discordant violins with starry keys and a hefty bagpipe calls to question why Messiah Musik didn’t use the latter beat from the start. It’s a lot more enjoyable to listen to and the two beats are so different they may as well have been for different songs. The unheard-of Fat Ray’s verse over the latter beat was so phat and smooth it is hard to complain, though it was the only of three features to hit that hard. 

The album peaks on the beautifully painful “Pollo Rico,” in which woods describes his stay in a hospital with his dying friend. The chorus, “Hospital vending machine, D2 is the Cheetos / New Years’ Eve I snuck in the Clicquot / Pollo Rico, yuca fries, Louis XIV in a vape, you hit it twice / I hope it’s nothing but love in paradise,” is memorably heartbreaking. 

The sample of a singer crying “hoooo” sounds more like a sound than a word. When Messiah Musik finally lets it play a bit longer at the end of the song, and the sample is revealed to have been of someone asking “who can help,” listeners are left with a pit in the stomach. 

The following “All Jokes Aside” has another crushing chorus. The wintery feeling of the bouncy drum beat and the soft, jazzy saxophone makes the feeling of loss all the more palpable. woods’ voice songs more desperate than ever in the final chorus; he sounds as if he is falling to his knees, begging for his friend to come back and barely getting out of his lungs: “All jokes aside / I enjoyed the ride / I miss my guys / Took the church and put it in the sky.”

The marijuana references and euphemisms across the array of experiences relayed throughout the album paint a picture of someone constantly relying on the substance to get through the hardest and easiest of experiences. The entire project feels like trying to get through the day with looming brain fog — certainly a concept, but one that makes it difficult to swallow in one piece. In general, Church is one of woods’ less consistent projects, which is surprising after Aethiopes, which was quite the opposite. The beats, which had great potential, are repetitive to the point of hurting the album’s relistening value. Yet, that doesn’t nullify the number of gems in the tracklist.