Semassa Boko is currently a PhD student at UC Irvine. His work involves using black studies to analyze, well, pretty much anything, but especially Black music (if you’re ever in need of a good conversation, ask him about George Clinton’s Afrofuturism). He has long been a friend and supporter of DXCEGAME, and we’re proud to feature his work. You can also find Semassa’s music journalism on PopMatters and SILK Magazine. For other insightful music opinions, revolutionary thoughts, and links to radical texts, follow him on Twitter @Tre4Raised.
Alright y’all, this is round two of reviewing Brass for me. Even a year ago, few may have predicted a collaboration between the prolific Philadelphia-based multi-genre artist Moor Mother and the no less prolific but elusive and ephemeral rapper billy woods. In fact, this collaborative album was not planned in advance, but emerged organically after the two released the opening track “Furies” as an Adult Swim single. The track became an ideal introduction to an album that shatters listeners’ grip on time and space with a gravitas underwritten by woods’ wry humor and Moor Mother’s playful tongue-in-cheek non-sequiturs. Out the gate, it’s obvious that they’re not fuckin around with lines like “Outside the concentration camp lookin’ for a light” and “The first liar played the lyre so sweet the furies weep.” By mixing lo-fi static slow and consistently bubbling African style horns and drums, Moor Mother and woods’ measured tone creates an atmosphere of adventure.
Full disclosure: I am a billy woods fanatic. According to the AI that roasts your Spotify listens, I have a real problem. According to my Spotify Wrapped, I was in the top %.1 of billy woods listeners last year…and that’s just his solo work, so it didn’t include my listens to his duo act Armand Hammer with rapper Elucid (who is featured on the track “Arkeology” and “Tiberius”). One of woods’ notable motifs is the way he combines repetition, alliteration, and an “echo” to imbue his verses with the energy and spirit of a motion picture reel. It’s this technique that makes his eerie refrain “Inoculate the babies/Inoculate the babies/It’s too late for y’all just INOCULATE THE BABIES,” from the track “Scary Hours” live rent free in my mind. It reminds me of what black feminist theorist Joy James often says – how would our politics change if we centered the health of (black) children above our own survival?
Backwoodz Studioz, the independent label founded by billy woods, lists some info that gives clues into the album’s title. Let’s break down each of the following statements.
“Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, in proportions which can be varied to achieve varying mechanical and electrical properties. It is a substitutional alloy: atoms of the two constituents may replace each other within the same crystal structure.”
Are billy woods and Moor Mother the alloys joining together? This is quite a meticulous way to represent their musical relationship. It certainly shows: while each artist has carefully cultivated idiosyncratic styles over their lengthy careers, they have a knack for drifting into each other’s sonic territory without causing friction. Roughly, one can talk about woods’ skills with traditional storytelling bars and Moor Mother’s ability to command space, time, and thought over noise-based production. But check how the two create a more traditionally structured track with two verses and a hook on “Rapunzel,” or how they trade bars over beat switches on “Giraffe Hunts.” Listen to woods’ verse on “Rock Cried,” and you’ll hear how he’s incorporating elements of Moor Mother’s less narratively-driven verses.
Brass has long been a popular material for decoration because of its resemblance to gold. It has low friction properties and acoustic properties, which make it one of the most popular metals to use when making musical instruments. It is commonly used as a decorative metal because of its resemblance to gold. It is also germicidal which means it can kill microorganisms on contact.
So, brass bears a resemblance to gold, but is not so close as to be considered “fool’s gold.” It’s presence in myriad musical instruments is apt for an album that cycles through sounds to create a bleak yet rich soundscape. Brass is certainly not a celebration, but it is a party – a “Bleak, beautiful catastrophe” according to Moor Mother on “Black Forrest.” And this last property is really compelling as well – being germicidal. What, or who, are the pathogens that this album disintegrates on contact? I guess that’s for you, the listener, to sit back and think about.
Brass is often used in situations in which it is important that sparks not be struck, such as in fittings and tools used near flammable or explosive materials.
Now this is one I need to sit with. Because while this album is devastatingly rich and incisive, it lingers at the spark just prior to a fire being burnt. Or perhaps it sits in the ashes, recounting the passionate flames that have run amok, clearing space for new life to come into being.
What makes Moor Mother and billy woods so enticing is not just that their lyrics, styles, or performances complement each other, but that they playfully challenge each other in a project of unmapping. If the concepts of mastery, conquest, and territorialization are central to the settler-colonial project, then billy woods and Moor Mother labor sonically to dissolve those principles from every angle, creating a sense of disorientation. At times, the style of Moor Mother’s performance feels like she is practicing her act for a one-person stage play, and we are the lucky spectators peeking into her process (likely due to her prowess as a visual performance artist). Listen closely to her vocal expressiveness, conversational style, and movement between emotional registers on the dilapidated instrumentals of “Tiberius.”
The production on the album is exquisite and enigmatic, injecting miniature interludes through silence and beat switches, as in the brief jazz piano riff at the end of “Tiberius” leading into “Giraffe Hunts.” The ominous atmosphere on “Rock Cried” serves as a stark backdrop for woods’ acknowledgement that the consequences of choosing black rebellion over mere survival is often death by hanging. Moor Mother, no stranger to rapping over some of the most delirious soundscapes in contemporary music, effortlessly glides over the weary African safari traveller vibes on “Black Forrest.”
The philosophical depth of this album is as expansive as the Atlantic Ocean is for thinking about blackness and its relationship to time, space, form, and the sonic itself. It is not a matter of us catching up to this duo’s brilliance as much as their work requires a particular unmooring of all the fictions that make us believe in linear time or individuation. The time of the plantation is here and now – but it is also the time of African cosmologies and geographies. This is why billy woods can rap with all unbothered seriousness, “Traffic stop, I reach for my slave pass slow,” on “Giraffe Hunts.”
The accumulated wisdom between these two must be fully appreciated. Sit for a second with woods’ emotional intelligence with a line like “I thought she was angry now I know it was fear,” on “Gang for a Day.” Or when he distills the cavernous difference between socialism and capitalism with “You don’t need a door if you get e’rything you need/ Need more, first thought when I get the cream,” on “Guiness.” And don’t miss out on the sauce with Moor Mother on “Black Forrest” where she goes “I don’t know time, but I see it passin’ me/ While the trumpets play casually…My shadow askin’ what about me?” Make sure you get that shadow work in y’all.
This album is emblematic of what Frank Wilderson calls a shift from a “politics of culture to a culture of politics.” Instead of pornographic displays of black suffering, or pleas aimed at a nonexistent white savior conscious, Moor Mother and billy woods take the African penchant for eclecticism and abstraction to craft a work worthy of the political stakes of decolonization. Aesthetically depicting the impossibility of the resolution of black suffering via incorporation into modern systems of power and domination, the form and content of the music takes a militant stance against…well, the whole world.
Favorite Tracks: Guinness, Chimney, Giraffe Hunts, Scary Hours
Best Listened to When: Meditating on revolution