When billy woods raps, “I’m home, but my mind be wandering off,” it comes off as a bit of a paradox. For a large part of Maps, his new collaborative album with Kenny Segal, the state of wandering off is home. But that song, ‘NYC Tapwater’, is about returning to the physical place you call home, which is where this “hero’s journey” begins. “I feel I got to come home from a journey to have anything to really say, right?” woods said in an interview with Rolling Stone. On songs like ‘NYC Tapwater’ and ‘Kenwood Speakers’, he reckons with the cultural demise of the city in a way so cutting and subtle it couldn’t come from the lens of an observer. This is just one of the roles woods occupies throughout Maps, along with that of a passenger, a person drifting from place to place with no apparent purpose other than to document what he finds. This results in disconnected vignettes that say much more about his own rise to success and the wider systems at work than whatever the latest stop on tour is.
Even a cursory, breeze-through listen makes it clear woods has a lot to say. Line by line, as always, there’s a strange pleasure in trying to untangle his knotted, artful rhymes and trace his shifts in perspective. But Maps is especially fascinating considering the scope of his discography; conceptually, as a kind of travelogue, it veers away from last year’s Aethiopes and Church, two vastly different albums in their own right, but at the same time seems to follow the same fragmented, dream-like logic, which woods doesn’t so much rest in as try to rip into. For many like-minded artists, dense lyricism against dreary, diffuse instrumentals is a comfortable vibe; for woods, it’s a challenge to find comfort amidst the unsteadiness. His second full-length collaboration with Segal, Maps both warps and perfects his approach while pushing him to explore new territory.
‘Soft Landing’, which flips the chorus of Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’, paints a conflicting portrait of dissociation, one where the high is illusory and short-lived but offers a rare moment of clarity that’s “nothing in the thought bubble/ From up here the lakes is puddles, the land unfold/ Brown and green, it’s a quiet puzzle.” The sparkling guitar that opens the song, peacefully countering woods’ darker dispatches, fizzles out, not clearing the way so much as passing the responsibility to him. Some of the album’s most transcendent, meaningful moments are like this, brief and dreamy, often compelling woods to lean into simpler, more direct language. You can chalk this up to his masterful ability to, well, map out a song in order to land the right punch, but it always works in tandem with, or even inspired by, Segal’s production. The feverish jazz of ‘Blue Smoke’ seems to tease the fire out of woods’ delivery, which remains cool and wryly frustrated. Then, a song called ‘Bad Dreams Are Only Dreams’ begins with the lines, “I can’t quite grab the new me/ Old self dozing in an aisle seat,” and barely a minute passes before the instrumental evaporates, denying any further self-inquiry.
The perpetual jet lag woods finds himself trapped in invites a variety of moods. Along with Segal’s production, some of the guests serve to pull him out of the haze: ‘Babylon By Bus’ and ‘Year Zero’, which boast verses from ShrapKnel and Danny Brown respectively, turn the blurry darkness woods normally crawls through into a menacing sprawl. Others, like Quelle Chris and his Armand Hammer partner Elucid, linger in the fog as a means of fleshing out a narrative. At their best, these appearances not only feel perfectly suited, but shed a light on woods’ headspace: “Strangely I feel right at home on my own,” goes the hypnotic chorus from Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring on ‘FaceTime’, trading in his experience as a touring musician. “When you was askin’ bout touring/ I get crux of the question,” Aesop Rock raps on ‘Waiting Around’. “It’s just the bulk of the answers are of another dimension.”
Time and time again, though, woods levels with us. “I say I’m at peace but, it’s still that same dread,” he admits on ‘Agriculture’, as if contesting the serenity of the instrumental – and his own expected growth. On ‘The Layover’, he raps: “I already knew the options was lose-lose/ Baby, that’s nothing new.” Despair is a loop, but there are new feelings and experiences to factor in that send Maps flying in different directions. The strange loneliness of ‘FaceTime’ may have its charms, but it offers no consolation against death, and so woods can’t fully succumb; no amount of poetic symbolism or doomsaying can distract him from the moment. That’s where many of the songs on Maps – especially ‘Soft Landing’ and the striking closer, ‘As the Crow Flies’ – eventually lead him. Whatever you call home, there’s nothing more compelling, so much that whenever and wherever it finds woods, he seems to run out of words. For such a master wordsmith, that certainly says something.