‘It’s not the heat, it’s the dust’
Following the success of Armand Hammer's new project Fahad Al-Amoudi revisits one of billy woods' most iconic albums...
Hiding Places album cover
Throughout his entire discography, billy woods has been a master at writing the ‘haunting’, the feeling of ‘post-trauma’ and it takes centre stage on his sensational album, Hiding Places, each track an attempt to house memories left in ruin. Hiding Places is no requiem, it is the taut and hollow mouth pinned open after the lightning shriek has divided the night into survivors; it gives form to the crouched bodies of dust, bent at the knee, accented by the wooden beams of the album cover’s abandoned building. This album resides in all the hiding places we claim as our own; finger curling around cutlery, marbled at the bottom of a biscuit tin, ringing in the marrow of a joystick, smoothing its sibilance of hair under wave caps. What we get on Hiding Places has little to do with chronology, or narrative, instead woods takes on the mantle of a scout visiting a place in turmoil as he grapples with an unspoken and inevitable reckoning. It’s not the heat, it’s the dust.
There is grief, hatred, comedy, longing and love coursing through every line of Hiding Places. Ornate bars, filled with molecular detail, decorate the verses on many songs. We are told of the arcade machine, and playing with joysticks long after the GAME OVER banner has flashed over the screen; the fragments of reported speech shrugging off threats of flight and narrow misses; of dethroned kings pacing the outskirts of their palaces, jumping out their skin at the sound of a ringtone. And yet, despite these visceral images of liminality, futility or retribution, they are short lived. Very few of the narrative elements of Hiding Places are given any time to breathe, and in their place, we are given the shadow of that emotion, a flavour of that ringing anxiety. In the opening song, ‘SpongeBob’, woods gives us one of the very few extended narrative moments where an entire verse is dedicated to the illness of a family member.
Overseas connection choppy, she’s getting worse/ your sister talked to the nurse, everybody in church/ everybody wants to know if you coming, but they won’t say the words/ your days feel rehearsed, nights come back in short bursts… got my Afri-call card, but Aki did lotto first
In his bars, the lens is always slightly off centre. The shadow justifies the image in the way the wound defines the weapon. Instead of choosing to speak about illness, woods talks about the response to this collective traumatic experience, giving us an understanding of his family’s hope, his own guilt, separation and the expected performance. In spite of all this fragmentation and paralysis, woods’ brother is still hopeful enough to try his luck with the lottery, showing an undertone of hope (misplaced or not). Although ‘Spongebob’s’ opening sequence disguises itself as a meta commentary on woods’ career with a few comedic asides— ‘too scared to write the book, took it, put it in the hook of a song, no one listened to it, looks like I wasn’t wrong’— his imagery and obfuscation of any kind of narrative logic reveals a much deeper loss underpinning Hiding Places. ‘SpongeBob’ asks questions about faith, about the codified bond between God and humans and it speaks volumes that images of gambling are played against images of church; a conflict emphasised best in the hook's final exclamation, ‘You Promised!’ On ‘SpongeBob’ the contract of faith has been broken and woods is left questioning what he can put his faith in.
This is a theme that creeps up a few songs later with ‘Checkpoints’ and ‘A Day in a Week in a Year’, the former a song that hinges around the image of hedging your bets in order to survive. ‘Checkpoints’ begins with the hilarious extended punchline, ‘If you haven’t heard a word in ten years assume me dead… or a guest of the feds… or cultivated a better class of friends’ introducing woods’ impetus to play out every outcome and see where it takes him. The image recurs on ‘A Day in a Week in a Year’ with these lines,
If I lose, it was rigged/ I’m the man if I win/ before settling on a narrative I took em all for a spin…
Just like God’s abandon on ‘SpongeBob’ we find another image of being left behind on ‘Checkpoints' and new album-wide themes of voyeurism and racial discrimination leading to a war cry against corrupt leadership. There are subtle parallels between the contracts of faith on ‘SpongeBob’ and the social contract on ‘Checkpoints’ with a distinct anti-colonial flavour that woods has always infused in every project. It may not matter that the ‘dethroned king’ on the song is not mentioned by name, it only matters that we ‘dig the pits.’
Between ‘SpongeBob’ and ‘Red Dust’, woods spends the best part of half an hour scoring an emotion, writing into this feeling of longing and telling us all the things that were not said. Hiding Places is a photo negative. It’s about a man returning to the scene of the crash and running his finger across the window sill, ‘prising every board from the floor’ and lingering in the moments of eerie abandon. In this sense woods almost offers himself up as bait for historical grievances. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than on ‘Houthi’ when woods painfully separates himself from his shadow as an offering to ‘the mice, the rats, whatever’s in the pipes’. It’s a zero-sum game; what goes up must come down and throughout the songs on Hiding Places there is this sense that what is hidden will be flushed out and what is celebrated will be mourned. The speaker lives their life much like an apparition on ‘Houthi’, evoking the reclusive figures of Miss Havisham and J.D Salinger, and revels in the tension between transience and paralysis. On the hook, woods injects this threat of flight against the haunting image of decaying bodies hanging in suspension at the window. It’s this tension that fuels the power of ‘Houthi’, that underpins the central warning of the song– you may never stop running. After the album’s release woods talked about the process of the album as being ‘cathartic’ as well as difficult to make, having to return to a place ‘once those emotional ties have been cut.’ There is a lot left unresolved all-over Hiding Places and the album really leans into themes of vengeance. There is a reckoning weaving its camouflage all over the album’s spider holes. On ‘Bedtime’, a song about gendered violence woods witnessed growing up, we get a visceral glimpse at this retribution…
One night every woman came out her grave/or wherever she was put, murdered, some cleverly hidden place/ niggas was hiding behind drapes (arguing)/ trying to load a .38/ Went to shoot, I’m like, ‘What that gon’ do?’/ That bullet’s for you, trust, you don’t want to see her face
Although it’s never made clear, the biblical vengeance wrought on the first verse leaves us in a world without adults. After Segal’s chaotic instrumental hook, we get a description of children waking to a world with no ‘bedtime’, no rules imposed by adults, where they are free to raid the cupboards, the stores, kiss in the street free of inhibition and race around the neighbourhood in shopping carts. It’s a moment of bliss soured at the end with the creeping sun, the shadows of empty houses reaching down the road and swallowing the barking dogs to the horizon. ‘Bedtime’ is an open song, giving way to any multiplicity of interpretation but there is an overwhelming sense that the song’s meaning derives primarily from this tension between adults and children. It’s a song about the destructive nature of age, the ingenuity of youth and it asks very difficult questions about functionality and relationships.
On ‘Bedtime’ the adults are the ones who are capable of horrors such as domestic violence, gendered violence, murder, suicide, seemingly unaware that they are not the only victims. Woods imagines a world without adults, where kids are free to live outside their bounded universes and yet, ultimately, there is this creeping sense that with the inevitable sunset comes a metamorphosis or that the joy of a world with no bedtimes has its darker consequences. Day and night are played against each other on ‘Bedtime’. Night is presented as the realm of adulthood whereas the kids do their ‘playing’ in daylight. The time of day, possibly a metonym for age, becomes this transformative power as the children, once uninhibited vessels for joy, potentially become trauma-inflicting adults. ‘Bedtime’ is a song that plays on the light and shade, that comments on intergenerational trauma, cycles of abuse but without a didactic lyrical voice. ‘Bedtime’ is a song that shows rather than tells and it benefits greatly from not triggering its audience by describing the details of the violence inflicted. It’s a devastating reveal that’s handled with care and consideration and it leaves the listener suspended half way through the album.
‘Bedtime’ is such a high point, emotionally, lyrically and tonally, that nothing really comes close until the guttural album-ender ‘Red Dust’. It is here where woods, in signature style, delivers an incredibly ‘close’ couple of verses with a measured ferocity and bone shattering conviction. He’s done it before on ‘The Eucharist’ and since, on ‘Stonefruit’ but ‘Red Dust’ is unique in its context. Woods ain’t hiding no more. The threat of vengeance is something that permeates the entire album but on ‘Red Dust’ woods becomes the living embodiment of this inexorable reckoning, pouring out his soul between tectonic drum hits. On the first verse he is the plagued survivor reflecting on his guilt by association, almost surprising himself with all the awful people he’s broke bread with. It’s a sobering moment, just like on ‘Bedtime’, that reminds the listener how high the stakes are. In a genre that can be silent about gendered violence and violence against children, it’s a brave thing for woods to launch into his tirade that calls out this behaviour. On the second verse, woods is no longer consumed by guilt but has transformed into the vessel for a transcendent kind of justice. He imagines this unnamed person and begins to describe all the pain he wants to inflict on them with such intimacy that woods himself compares it to sex,
I want us to be alone in your home/I wanna suck the marrow out your bones/I wanna show you what I learned from the worst people I’ve ever known
and later with,
So close, I can see a nick from shaving/your neck so exposed/your throat would open like a hose/eyes wide open, I would watch you go
Each corporeal expression is written with such fragility that it heightens the language of the song and equally the crime itself. The listener is left wondering what this person did to deserve this kind of vengeance. It is as brutal as it is shocking but the context of ‘Bedtime’ and the context of the first verse of ‘Red Dust’ hints at what injustice woods is trying to seek justice for and perhaps eases the listener’s conscience. Few albums end with such a tumultuous passage of lyricism and for a project that circles around trauma and guilt, it is a surprise to finally be hit with a dose of raw but carefully considered emotion.
Hiding Places is an event. At times it can be a fragmented horror-scape, or a dark comedy set, or a pair of tongs prising open a brief spectrum of black joy, all married beautifully with Kenny Segal’s deftly crafted beats. Give Segal his flowers. Hiding Places might not have been so hard-hitting without his drowned percussion and guitars, without his zany samples and haunting soundscapes. Coming together, billy woods and Kenny Segal have created an album that mirrors its subject matter with a granular precision. Mourn it, celebrate it, be haunted by it; either way, Hiding Places is billy woods’ most accomplished album with a writing and production style that tears through the spirit like rain and leaves the listener circling their lips, feeling on their tongue the timbre of voices falling out the sky. As woods himself puts it, ‘if you live, sometimes it’s just best to circle the block.’