It’s hard to process the speed at which we’ve moved on from the pandemic. Emerging from the soft lockdown of 2020 was a little herky-jerky — especially for live music. Venues tried their best to negotiate keeping people safe while keeping the doors open, which led to a newfound emphasis on outdoor shows. Musicians spent 2020 watching their incomes quickly vaporize, so when things began to open up, tour announcements — and their subsequent COVID-related cancellations — flooded social media. Now, as we face down summer 2023, there’s an asterisk next to “normalcy;” live music is back even if it’s unclear how much the pandemic is still with us.
billy woods describes Maps, his exceptional new album and second collaboration with producer Kenny Segal, as a “post-pandemic” record, an interesting shift from the quarantine-album narrative that dominated the past couple of years. And Maps is exactly that, chronicling woods’ return to touring as the general population hesitantly removed their masks and walked back inside. He wrote a lot of the record on the road, documenting the mundanities and curiosities of life as a touring artist, especially one with a larger, more international audience than before. “Soundcheck” describes his need to escape the tedium of its titular activity, opting instead to find the nearest Szechuan restaurant. He fights jet lag on “Bad Dreams Are Only Dreams” and smokes weed in a hotel room during “Facetime,” listening to festival goers chase oblivion after a Playboi Carti set.
But while the world emerges from pandemic solitude, woods still keeps to himself. Other people occasionally appear on Maps, but woods renders them mostly shapeless, drifting through the background of his peripatetic life before disappearing into the fog. After returning from the Szechuan spot and rocking the show in “Soundcheck,” he sits quietly for a while before settling up with the promoter. He falls asleep in the backseat of an Uber from Kansas City to Lincoln, Nebraska on “Baby Steps” and wanders around Amsterdam with headphones on “Waiting Around.”
Touring propels Maps’ narrative forward, but more than that, it serves as a 30,000-foot perch for woods to view society and his place in it. Though he flies around the globe to perform, it seems woods never leaves his own head. In many instances across the album, he keenly observes everything from above, noting how “lakes look like puddles” from an airplane (“Soft Landing), marveling at the vast expanse of the desert landscape (“Facetime”), and learning what the sunset looks like from the highest point in a given city (“Soft Landing”). At times, like on “Year Zero,” these instances of reflection make him want to burn everything down and let the youth figure out a better way to exist. In more peaceful moments, he imagines a simple, agrarian life, tending to his patch of land and trading food with neighbors. No matter how far afield his thoughts go, there’s always a comedown: another spliff to roll, another stage to rock, another flight to catch.
Kenny Segal bolsters woods’s mercurial verses with a palette of clean, expansive beats. Compared to the claustrophobic, lumbering dread of their previous record, 2019’s stress-rap masterpiece Hiding Places, Maps is much lighter on its feet. Segal’s production is frequently beautiful, full of softly chiming guitars and flute samples underpinned by bracing drum patterns. Even in its darkest moments, like the towering drones of “Year Zero” or muted orchestral tension of “Baby Steps,” Segal leaves space as wide as the sky. The two have undeniable chemistry; woods always sounds exceptionally comfortable over a Kenny Segal beat, and Segal complements woods’s intricate writing brilliantly, keeping the backdrops uncluttered but ever-evolving.
In the end, woods returns home, road weary and eager for comfort, but his mind refuses to stay still. The New York he returns to in “NYC Tapwater” is always different, the march of time slowly chipping away at his idea of home. In the end, the familiar will always fade. It’s difficult to ever know when or where you really are.