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”