Billy Woods “Aethiopes” Album Review


Billy Woods

  • Genre: Underground Rap
  • Release Date: 2022-04-08
  • Explicitness: explicit
  • Country: USA
  • Track Count: 13
  • ℗ 2022 Backwoodz Studioz

The new and first Billy Woods solo album, Aethiopes, is a clear mid-career apex that shoves woods’ always outlandish style into territories further afield than ever before. The project ends up feeling like a series of heavily-stylized comic strips – though these are more Alan Moore than weekend funnies.

The album’s overwhelming atmosphere invites you to pore over the tracks, to take in each detail the light reaches, and then comb over them again for everything you’ve missed.

There are multiple histories within, their twisted appearances tempting you to ease in closer, to discover more – which only leads down deeper wormholes. The details of woods’ work will still be getting discovered, decoded and debated in a few generations’ time.

Album Cover Artwork

A painting of two impoverished-looking Black men is plastered on this project’s artwork. And the faces of the men there tell many tales of suffering and pain.

With the title, ‘Aethiopes’, being an ancient word for African, the cover image borrowed from the 1661 painting “Two Moors” by Dutch master Rembrandt, and a song called “Haarlem” after the region of Amsterdam that would eventually give a name to the multi-cultural area of New York City, there is evidently a grander narrative about slavery, historical immigration and the Black diaspora at large at play.

Songs and Features

There are a ton of guests on Aethiopes, and all of them put in great work, including El-P, Boldy James, Quelle Chris, Fatboi Sharif, Despot, Breeze Brewin, Gabe’ Nandez, Mike Ladd, Denmark Vessey, dancehall legend Shinehead, and woods’ Armand Hammer partner Elucid.

With Preservation behind the boards on every track, Aethiopes skids across eras, countries, and cultures. It begins with “Asylum” and the swirling sounds of piano keys, delicate guitars, and snaking brass riffs that appear sourced from old North East Africa or Middle Eastern music.

The song follows woods as he assumes the role of a boy living under a cloud of battling parents within a gated residence, watching the unusual activities of a new neighbour with Hitchcockian obsession.

In “Protoevangelium,” he details a party in Chinatown spent smoking cigars and spotting Julius Erving. Woods has always rapped with unbreakable forward movement—flowing in long sentences, never dwelling too long on any syllable—that lends itself well to storytelling. But these days, he finds the pocket a little better, seemingly more mindful about running over margins or bumping up against beats.

“The Doldrums” deploys a small number of slow-moving elements—twangy fret play, bassy hammer-ons—to form a dusty beat that summons feelings of the cinematic Wild West.

Similarly, the Sergio Leone-evoking “Christine” includes some before-the-bullets-fly tension, the vinyl hissing like rain as woods plays a high plains drifter in a dirty trench coat. Then there’s the doomed march of “Sauvage,” featuring guest verses from Boldy James and Gabe’ Nandez.

It’s exciting to hear woods join forces with El-P and Breeze Brewin of Juggaknots on “Heavy Water.” In this crossover episode, the trio shares the mic like a game of pass the parcel: El-P expresses confusion at Google Chrome, and woods calls himself the “multiverse Benzino,” a hilarious reference to one of rap’s most unpalatable villains of the 2000s.

“NYNEX” sets out a bleak vision for the future with flashes of harmonica that sound like music from a hobo living in dystopia. The album’s final stretch encapsulates its elaborate brilliance.

On “Remorseless,” Preservation lines up the otherworldly Moog sounds while woods delivers a broad benediction on the lessons he’s learned over the years; closer “Smith + Cross” is built around a piercing guitar sample lends it an appropriately epic feel.


No Title Time
1 Asylum 2:42
2 No Hard Feelings 2:15
3 Wharves 3:08
4 Sauvage (feat. Boldy James & G 3:07
5 The Doldrums 3:40
6 NYNEX (feat. Elucid, Quelle Ch 4:17
7 Christine (feat. Mike Ladd) 3:31
8 Heavy Water (feat. EL-P & Bree 2:23
9 Haarlem (feat. Fatboi Sharif) 3:19
10 Versailles (feat. Despot) 3:07
11 Protoevangelium (feat. Shinehe 2:24
12 Remorseless 2:50
13 Smith + Cross 2:21

Album Theme

Aethiopes is a solitary, inward kind of headphones record in more ways than one. From another perspective, though, it looks at the underground rap community working at the highest possible level.

Production Credits

Aethiopes was almost entirely produced by Preservation, a beatmaker based in New York.


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