There are those that believe in structure. Verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus. That’s a song, specifically equipped for radio play. Sixteen bars is the perfect length of a verse. An album is to be 10 songs clocking in at 40 minutes, like Illmatic. Illmatic might be considered a perfect album due to that foundation, with the rest owed to Nas and the producers like Q-tip and Large Professor. In literature it’s Freytag’s Pyramid: exposition, rising action, climax. Then, there are those who tire of structure, perceive it as toxic, and attack the rudimentary through calculated disregard. When Russian author Daniil Kharm’s work was rediscovered in the 1960s it was celebrated for its denial of the status quo. Kharms wrote stories so short they barely satisfied the rising action of Freytag’s design. When New York-based rapper billy woods discovered Kharms he found a solution to a similar crisis. He didn’t know it, but structure was stifling his ability to write.
There’s an adage that goes, “you have your whole life to write your first album and one year to write the second.” billy woods’ output arrived as though he planned a preemptive measure, writing two lifetimes in advance. History Will Absolve Me was not the debut, but it broke woods into a blog culture eager to champion a new underground sect, repositioning the definition of real, in 2012. In the two years that followed, woods collaborated with Aesop Rock’s former producer Blockhead on Dour Candy and announced a group called Armand Hammer with Elucid. The duo released 33 songs split between the Half Measures mixtape and Race Music full length. By 2014, Armand Hammer’s Furtive Movements EP was woods’ sixth release in three years, a massive and staggeringly consistent body of work. And then, billy woods caught writer’s block.
“There was a period of time where I intentionally was not trying to write any raps,” woods says on a phone call. “Just recharging and working on other endeavours, which was a natural progression after a pretty hectic schedule in 2013, going into 2014. Then when I did try to start doing stuff again, it was like pulling teeth.”
Not that we’d notice. The one year anniversary of the Furtive Movements EP remains four months out and Today, I Wrote Nothing, his solo follow-up to History Will…, dropped early April—business as usual. The title Today, I Wrote Nothing in the context of a billy woods record feels suspect. The album itself avoids conventional introduction as Elucid is the first voice heard, while woods enters crestfallen and apathetic on “Lost Blocks” with the words, “today, I wrote nothing” as his overture.
And it’s not that he wrote nothing, the end. He did not release an instrumental record with only those words as his sole written statement. (But that could have been funny, in an absurdist way.) Today, I Wrote Nothing might not exist had woods not endured a spell of inactivity, a spell broken by a drunk with a copy of a Daniil Kharms’ eponymous collection. That’s getting ahead though because the album began as nothing, a purposeful avoidance due to needing a vacation from his pen and pad. Although with no “out of office” reply, inquiries for work kept coming. With each request for a guest verse or collaboration, woods was dissatisfied with himself.
“I found I was having a hard time writing anything that I liked,” woods says. “I felt blocked, uninspired. It just wasn’t happening.”
He later clarifies: “I wasn’t actively fighting writer’s block for a full year or anything. As the situation continued, most of my thoughts centered around hoping I would come up with some ideas that actually worked or were inspiring.”
Except inspiration never came knocking. And so, requests went unfulfilled, submitted beats piled into his inbox, and his attempts at writing were presumably marred in strike-thrus, scribbles, and idle doodles.
I definitely am always afraid that the magic will disappear. Anyone who isn’t afraid of that is either a fool, or never had the magic to begin with.
If this can be called the Content Age, then no one writes nothing. Besides, Kharms has beaten us to the ultimate, absurdist irony with his four word short story. (Flash fiction that slaughters Hemingway’s “baby shoes” in brevity.) Now, writing nothing of worth? Currently trending. The content farming boom is our collective duty, missives on missives at a stenographer’s rate; “excuse this message written by my primitive phalanges”; while the notion of writing nothing amounts to conventional futility. For woods the absence of inspiration was holding a gun to his dense writing style. What once was an annotation nightmare for the Rap Genius engineers unversed in Russian literature, African revolutionaries, and the lexicon of Aesop Rock, had been reduced to paper balls to be flung towards a corner waste basket with a buzzer beater countdown. 3…2…1
It’s in those lulls that the big artistic fears begin to manifest. He reflects: “What happens to me in those situations is I start to think ‘is this going to be the end?’”
He likens the situation to an intangible and mystic “something” that’s taken many forms and many names throughout history. That je ne c’est quoi present in an artist’s most inspired years. In the moment they’ve got the juice, lucidity, operating on a higher level, and poetry in motion. Once gone, the era is looked upon as halcyon, unobtainable, and distant. He cites William Faulkner’s best years from 1930 to 1936, an astounding six years of The Sound And The Fury (technically 1929), As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom! Then, 30 years of modest, published work until the year of his death in 1962. woods noted the same lulls for writers, like James Baldwin, Doris Lessing, and contemporary artists like Neil Gaiman or even Denzel Washington, who never fall too far out of grace, but also rarely revisit the zenith of their most celebrated works.
“Nothing lasts forever. Which is probably why guys like JD Salinger or Ralph Ellison never really followed up their best work at all,” he says. “Might be why Andre 3000 isn’t trying to do a solo rap record.”
As for his work:
“I definitely am always afraid that the magic—whatever I think ultimately allows my best work, much of which has been produced in last five years, to be more than the sum of it’s parts—will disappear. Anyone who isn’t afraid of that is either a fool, or never had the magic to begin with.”
The catalyst for Today I Wrote Nothing is pure happenstance. Contrary to popular belief writers do not enter bars in the pursuit of inspiration. And yet, that’s how it happened for woods. A gentlemen, rather drunk, carrying a Daniil Kharms collection caught woods’ interest in a neighborhood dive. The man may never be aware, but that night he was the drunken sage that seems a fool at first, but his book and his slurred impression of its contents were of serendipitous worth.
“I was flipping through the book and thought what a great title,” woods says. “Certain things you read and say ‘that was good’ and put down and that’s the last you think of them, and that is also fine and I love many of those books. Then there are things you read, after which, your perception of the world is changed forever; Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, Good Country People, Blood Meridian, The Sandman, Heart Of Darkness, The Grass Is Singing, Moby Dick, and so forth, and so forth. Kharms four-word story did that for me as well.”
Daniil Kharms was a Russian absurdist author who in the 1930s helped found the OBERIU, a collective of avant garde writers and artists that believed art should operate outside the rules of logic. In his lifetime, he was mostly a published children’s author and even that proved detrimental to his literary efforts due to his resistance to honor Soviet ideals. Kharms wrote and explored the avant garde in spite of the alienation in his country. He died of starvation in a Soviet psyche ward during the siege of Leningrad. In the 1960s his short stories were rediscovered, long after his death, and published.
“I found Kharm’s life interesting, and I am just a person who is very into history to begin with, so his place in his time was doubly fascinating,” woods says. “That said, what really spoke to me about him was simply his work. The ability to stand outside of the norm and do something different, but not just for the sake of being different, but that actually meant something and was powerful in a new and unique way.”
In Kharms, woods discovered a renegade to structure. George Saunders of the New York Times said of Kharms, “Again and again, Kharms shuffles up to the place in Freytag’s Triangle where the rising action bursts upward, then turns and hustles back the way he came. Read enough Kharms and you soon begin to recognize this refusal to play the game as his intentional aesthetic, and wonder: So, what is the meaning of this refusal to play?” Saunders goes on to see Kharms as not absolutely absurdist to the brutality of his times, but pursuing a weirdness that stems from an aesthetic crisis rather than political.
It’s not about not taking time with your craft. It’s about the energy that you’re generating.
With woods’ Today, I Wrote Nothing we find a rapper no longer consumed by the same aesthetic prison. We could paint woods as a revolutionary, militant-minded rapper concerned with the headlines of our era, and be correct, but TIWN is not intended as social commentary. It’s an aesthetic crisis resolved in the midst of personal strife. It’s also the fastest record woods’ has written, possibly an epitaph to Kharms’ style. The longest track on woods’ 24 song effort is 4 minutes, 51 seconds while the shortest a mere 46 seconds. Tracks like “Zulu Tolstoy” mirror Kharms in absurdism as woods’ spins a yarn about a fictional rapper that is unaware he’s in a story woods’ has abandoned and keeps pursuing his dreams of making it, while “Flatlands” and “Sleep” feel like anthemic-vignettes in which traditional song structure is left unfulfilled. In writing the album he said, “It’s not about not taking time with your craft.”
“It’s about the energy that you’re generating. On this record I knew what the idea was, but it was the difference of writing a novel on a subject to writing a series of short stories and vignettes that are ultimately about the same subject, you can approach them in a different way.”
If Tolstoy, as Mailer once wrote, presented an image of a huge landscape peopled with figures who changed the landscape, then Kharms presented the people who will never be mythologized because they lived and died in oppression and obscurity. Even in his world, they were hardly worth the words. In woods’ world, one heavily influenced by the cold truths found in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, life is traveling without brakes and funerals are the milestones. Today, I Wrote Nothing is a testament to woods’ resourcefulness to overcome the looming perils of the spooky art of writing. He’s fought off the inevitable end, the inexplicable disappearance of that unexplainable something, for now. His album navigates towards the cathartic breaths amidst a duel with impermanence. Addressed on “Borrowed Time” it’s in the form of woods opting to not peer into a friend’s coffin, choosing “yeah, I don’t think I’m gonna look in / rather remember how he was back then / before all that… and everything.” Unlike Nas, woods’ work is not so brazen to protest he never sleeps (since sleep is the cousin of death), but keeping a little bit of fear and awareness of impermanence has kept him alive.
“I always assume I am on borrowed time, so to speak,” he says. “Having blocks is nothing new, what I fear is the day when I can’t get past them and [can’t] come out the other side with something that was worth the journey.”
billy woods’ Today, I Wrote Nothing is out now on Backwoodz Studioz.