Billy Woods - Dour Candy

That trapped train passenger is exactly how Woods sees himself: unable to escape, fate sealed, and mad as hell.

Additional Info


ALBUM: Dour Candy

ARTIST: Billy Woods



The first episode of HBO’s Taxicab Confessions features a former New York City first responder recalling a commuter who had been pushed off of a subway platform, only to be caught in between the train and the concrete barrier—his torso facing forward, legs twisted multiple times below him. He would only live as long as the train pinned his body; once it was moved, his “guts fall down, and in less than a minute [he would be] dead”. The image became ingrained in the memories of an audience that included James Yoshimura, a writer who spun it into the most famous episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. It’s one of the most gripping hours to ever grace television screens: the pinned man, still desperate to survive, gives detectives names of loved ones to locate. Furious that this happened to him, he comes to realize that the very train that killed him is now the only thing keeping him alive. Of course, that train has to be moved—the other commuters are getting antsy. It’s sad, but it’s mostly just inconvenient.

The original audio clip from Confessions makes it onto Dour Candy highlight “Hack”, a frustrated lament from a rapper/hustler/cab driver who finds himself burned out by the very pursuits he’s chosen. That trapped train passenger is exactly how Woods sees himself on this album: unable to escape, fate sealed, and mad as hell. Last year’s impressive History Will Absolve Me was an anonymous voice ruminating on the fear and fearfulness that had overtaken the last twelve years; Dour Candy gives that voice a backstory. For a rapper who probably has a fascinating history both personal and professional (he’s almost a founding member of Cannibal Ox), Woods makes the clever decision to live almost entirely in the present tense. Opener “The Undercard” is about the night on the way to a gig (“nah, it’s nothing big/don’t get up”), but the song’s struggling rapper is also a struggling drug dealer—and his re-up’s in the backpack he doesn’t let leave his sight while on stage.

Woods doesn’t turn life into an endless whirl of rap money and coke money and insatiable women; those elements are all there, but instead of creating the MTV-ready synergy they’re supposed to, they just fight for space in already-crowded days. He’s an endlessly fascinating writer who layers razor-sharp imagery on top of evocative, disarmingly straight-faced punchlines (“pleasantly surprised like mom gave me the car keys”; “took the pussy like a slave revolt”) and wearied thoughts on life that never masquerade as advice and don’t lean on aphorism or cliché. And as heavy as the subject matter can get, Woods saves himself and the listener from anything too macabre with his wit and self-awareness (“Fool’s Gold” personifies something—luck, success—as a femme fatale whom he desperately promises to “take away from all of this”). Frequent Aesop Rock collaborator Blockhead handles the production from front to back, to mostly good results. The beats occasionally dig into the bag of ‘unconventional underground rap’ stock sounds (“Redacted”; “The Opposer”), but for the most part are varied, atmospheric, and aggressive in suit with Woods.

In the Homicide episode, the ranking officer chooses to withhold from the dying man the fact that he had been pushed, believing the information won’t be of any comfort. It’s no matter—the victim figures it out himself. Understandably, he’s furious; Woods feels similarly pandered to. “Lucre”—the last song recorded for the album—is about moral areas that are either grey or a few shades darker and the villains within them. The song’s thesis is that the bad guys actually make it out alive, while the masses are placated with pithy wisdom like “the word is promised to the meek and the poor”. That’s not enough for the DC-by-way-of-New-York rapper, who responds “I take that like a kiss from a whore”. Dour Candy is dense but short, an album that begs for repeat listens and rewards them endlessly. More than that, it’s almost definitely the best rap album to come out this year, and while it’s unlikely to be the defining Billy Woods album, it should be. He’s an artist who has built songs—often great ones—around historical and cultural reference points and gone off on political tangents that are often too high a tightrope act for even the most gifted writers. But on Dour Candy, those references are all the more urgent because they’re there to augment the story of a man living in the world that should be the sum of all the politicians and wars and records and Supreme Court justices he names, but is often so much less. It’s a masterpiece.

"I take that like a kiss from a whore”

1. The Prelude
“The Prelude” seeps directly through the fourth wall and speaks to Woods’ reluctance to become a public figure, employing an audio clip that makes a strong argument for letting work stand on its own. The eerie vocal clip is appropriately in line with the enigmatic aesthetic Woods has cultivated.
2. The Undercard
Dr. Charlie Maher, a sports psychologist who has worked for the New York Yankees and New England Patriots among other teams, warns that we lose focus on our most pressing tasks by convincing ourselves the pursuits we use as distractions are more interesting. “The Undercard” supports that: while ostensibly about a drug deal and a rap concert, it’s not really about either one. The song’s protagonist finds himself thinking about rapping when he should be keeping his wits about him, but then finds himself completely out of the moment at his show, staring at the backpack that holds his work. The minute, immediate details are interspersed with paranoia (“turned the corner like Kennedy in Dallas”) that everything’s going too smoothly. The song’s genius is that the familiar content—rapping, drugs, threats of violence—masks what it really is: a thrilling, daringly high concept narrative that takes place inside of seventy seconds. 10.0
3. Gilgamesh
Apparently inspired by a chance encounter Woods had with the illegitimate daughter of an official in the Rafael Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, “Gilgamesh”—titled for the Mesopotamian demigod who slept with brides on their wedding nights, much like Trujillo was alleged to have done—is a narrative about an old acquaintance who passes through town, preparing for her wedding, but wanting to sleep with Woods. And with “rattling medals” (another Trujillo reference; he was known to give himself countless awards and medals, never taking them off), Woods obliges. It’s an unsettling song that grows steadily on the listener. Blockhead’s production is the instrumental equivalent of a mean drawl, and Woods punctuates the creeping track at his reference-heavy best. 10.0
4. Redacted
The difference between Billy Woods and other underground rappers taking the shit-talking-but-still-intelligent rap angle is that Woods still sells the aggression of the practice. “Redacted”, the first collaboration with Elucid, is the smartest braggadocio song we’re likely to get this year (“beard like I’m on Hajj/go hard like old testament god”). Elucid’s more than capable as an emcee, and his excitedly disjointed verse dances around the song’s loosely defined theme. Woods steals the show with his closing line, though: “There’s nothing on that high moral ground by more corpses”. 9.0
5. Manteca
Named for the Dizzy Gillespie song referenced in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, “Manteca” is the reaction to the racially charged disaffection felt after events as famous as the Amadou Diallo shooting and as anonymous and routine as the DC police illegally breaking into an apartment in which Woods once lived. It’s a song that lives on the verge of a breakdown of some sort—into despair, into panic, or into vengeful violence. Each verse ends as if Woods is using every shred of restraint he has to keep from extending it four more bars and throwing in a murder, or at least a neighborhood-wide riot. For an album-oriented artist, pieces like this are absolutely indispensable. 9.5
6. Central Park
Most songs that juxtapose such bright instrumentals with serious subject matter do it toward the end—a twist, an injection of cynicism. “Central Park” lets the breeziness of a summer day in the park coexist with the bleakness of the city (the song ends entirely unresolved, Woods finishing with “fact is, a gun charge with two priors?/my little cousin’s going to prison”, and the search for blame that leads up to that line is fruitless). But even the hopelessness of kids turning into too-young drug dealers can’t stop the playfulness of the song: “the hustler in me wants to give back/help kids with their fractions, metric system/reading comprehension, theoretical math/like, ‘if you give a dude a half, what’s the likelihood he brings it back?’”. 9.5
7. The Opposer
“The Opposer” plays more poorly in context than it does in isolation. “Central Park” and this song’s successor, “One Thousand One Nights”, are both somber and foreboding—at least lyrically—and this reads just a few degrees too carefree and unhinged. It’s good, just improperly sequenced. At least it still has “shake ‘em down like seasoned strippers”. The record would do better later in the album, preferably after “Pro Wrestling” as a means of relating that back to the anonymous people the album deals with primarily. 7.5
8. One Thousand One Nights
Referring to the tale of Scheherazade, “One Thousand One Nights”, the Billy Woods in this song is much like the Billy Woods of “Gilgamesh”—a king of sorts in his mind, but a low level drug dealer in reality. But like the king in the Scheherazade fable, he takes a liking to his new companion and keeps her around, even when “her stories don’t add up”. Despite sporting the album’s only true clunker of a line (the drawn out “Olivia Newton John, urging me to get physical” could have been at home on the last J. Cole album), “One Thousand One Nights” also has Woods saying “Oliver Twist flipped his way to the coupe with the roof gone”, which might be the most evocative rags-to-riches bar in years. Combine that with the fantastic metaphor “stormed the castle, swam the moat/a moment’s hesitation/then took the pussy like a slave revolt”. Blockhead’s horn loop is the end of the second act in every Western ever. 9.5
9. Tinseltown
To this point in the album, the characters in the songs have been drug dealers by way of assumption. “Tinseltown” calls all of that into question. “They used to clown the kid like ‘scared money don’t make money’/now they’re doing bids, right?” After that cautious opener (and with a Public Enemy nod on the hook), the song watches the paranoia and isolation that comes with the drug trade unfold in real time. “I been on that Ralph Ellison.” 8.5
10. Tumbleweed
Aesop Rock shows up at his sharpest to trade verses about the emptiness that comes at the end of a relationship. Like the titular tumbleweeds, the emcees drift through cities aimlessly. Aesop drops his customarily left-of-center imagery (“pox on his tipping side handshake”; “tan lions examining how the lamb tastes”; “hand-painted mask on, bad-ass-quiat”) and Woods, sounding shockingly similar to the Rhymesayer, follows suit, spending most of his verse walking home from a bar, alone. Blockhead does a superb job maintaining the momentum of the song during each extended verse. 8.0
11. Hack
Kind of about a cab driver, kind of about a hustler, kind of about an aspiring rapper, “Hack” is about the same thing—a hack. The hook would be incredibly fun if it wasn’t so sad; “write the rhymes they wanna hear, right? (here, right!)” taunts the speaker, who’s being told by his small label that he has to turn in a new free project every month and a half. Perhaps the most powerful line is when he makes the switch “from youthful crime to ‘this is all I really have”—a leap that happens before anyone’s ready for it. Police sirens are also referred to as “misery lights”, which should be enough of a selling point for anyone. 10.0
12. Fool’s Gold
“Fool’s Gold” is about the illusory. Open Mike Eagle steals the show with his opening verse, which beings “I once played the fool at a DOOM show/I really thought it was him because I stood back a few rows/angry people threw ‘bows and crushed a few toes/it was like a live production of The Emperor’s New Clothes” and goes on to detail a venue “employee rocking a grin like a Cheshire cat”. Moka Only and (especially) Elucid also impress, the latter telling a story about waking up, “eyes open on cold tile, covered in sweat and bile” with a doctor looking over him, waiting for his visitor’s return. Woods tops those two with a verse that’s part American Beauty and part Pretty Woman (and maybe part Malcolm X)—telling a sex worker “from years of wondering ‘maybe’ and ‘what if’/it’s not that I don’t love my wife and kids, but this is it” and promising to “take [her] away from all of this”. 9.0
13. Pro Wrestling
Without taking a single ideological or legislative stance, Woods makes one of the most damning political records in recent memory. The premise is simple: political discourse, especially on the right, is dominated by theater, not substance. The verses are excellent, but they’re secondary to the song’s main argument—by the end, Glenn Beck and Ric Flair are indistinguishable. 9.0
14. Lucre
The slow creep of “Lucre” is like a funeral march. Actually, the record feels unfinished—like Woods is fed up with the world (this is the song with the aforementioned “kiss from a whore” line), the fear mongering he sees, and the general unfairness of things and turned on the microphone while he mulled over everything bothering him. It’s a clever approach to a song that would usually be militant and more obviously angry, and for the most part it works. It’s slow burning, but sticks with you—the image of bodies being left in the street to make a point is perfectly disarming. 8.0
15. Cuito Cuanavale
To quote Woods, “Cuito Cuanavale” is about “people that you think are riding with you, when the shit starts to go down are like ‘we barely know the guy'. The short song takes Dour Candy’s largely personal (and always domestic) concerns and transposes them to a global context. In doing so, it makes global issues that seem too foreign or impenetrable to resonate with Americans real and immediate. Maybe that’s the lesson of Dour Candy—there is no divide between what Woods does here and what he does on more globally focused records. The fear and uncertainty the dealer on “The Undercard” feels is the same as that felt by refugees in Angola. The hook is lifted from Marlo in The Wire. 9.0
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a the lead writer at 2dopeboyz and a frequent contributor to Passion of the Weiss.

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