November 30, 2023

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billy woods: Church Album Review

In 1947, the American minister William Marrion Branham claimed he was visited by an angel who bestowed him with the gift of curing the world of sickness and decay. It began Branham’s worldwide post-World War II healing revival, where he became a quintessential cult figure. News reporters and other ministers accused him of being a fraud, he launched and validated the violent ministries of Jim Jones and Paul Schäfer, and he spread a doctrine based on the restoration of archaic Christian values and doomsday predictions. Branham’s voice, ripped from a 1954 sermon in Washington, D.C., acts as a bridge between the second and third songs of billy woods’ newest album Church. It is measured, striking against the fading instrumental. “Let Him be first of all. Then, the hunger, deep. As David said, ‘When the deep calleth to the deep, at the noise of thy waterspouts,’” he barks. The line invokes Psalm 42:7, a lament that witnesses a call out to God, as the psalmist seeks confidence and hope in the face of trials and tribulations. The grainy recording feels as if it was buried deep in woods’ subconscious: Here, the lessons of faith burned into his memory are brought to the forefront, delivered through the voice of a false prophet.

Church arrives just a few months after woods’ stellar solo effort Aethiopes. With Church‘s short list of collaborators (Fat Ray, AKAI SOLO, Fielded, and Armand Hammer’s Elucid appear over 12 songs), his voice arrives in relative solitude. It grants him the space to unravel a dense memoir, musing about love, memory, and faith. There’s a heaviness that shrouds the album: Producer Messiah Muzik’s mutation of obscure crate gems like Roger Bellon’s 1977 “Blaknite” makes the entire project feel like a fever dream spiraling out of control. But that chaos and murkiness suits woods; with his uncanny ability to fuse raps to fractured beats, Church is a sprawling personal history, one that ensures that his status as a master of his craft remains unchanged.

woods has previously changed his writing perspective at the drop of a hat, treating his lyrics as puzzles that the listener has to piece together. This time, he writes from his own viewpoint, utilizing powerful imagery and nimble similes to narrate his experiences, often focusing on gloomy themes. On “Paraquat,” woods likens his relationship failures and lack of self-worth to James Harden’s stints on two different teams, then lambasts his brother’s spiritual and moral hypocrisy in the following four bars. In the next breath, as the beat switches to a trodding piano and straining saxophone seemingly lifted from a seedy Harlem jazz bar in the ‘50s, woods veers into political commentary: “Whitey hit Hiroshima, then he doubled back/Black rain baptized, black skies/I’m always waiting on the thunderclap,” he raps, chomping at the bit to put warmongers on trial with his words.

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