There’s no hand-holding with billy woods. He’s not going to tell you everything’s fine while the world is getting worse – and us worse along with it. “World getting warmer, we going the other way.” Climate change is essentially irreversible at this point, poverty is ever-spreading, jobs are sacred – hard to keep, harder to get – relationships splinter until they’re irreparable and woods isn’t going to let us forget our role in all of it. We’re all the man-in-the-hole Vonnegut talks about on Terror Management‘s (woods’ second album of 2019) opener “Marlow.” The only difference is we’re not working our way upwards out of the hole, couldn’t be bothered; we’re digging deeper.
For woods the ills of the world result from the actions of people terrified to look inward. With Terror Management, woods seeks to show them the mirror. The Terror Management Theory attempts to explain the behaviour humans exhibit when faced with death. Fear of death can cause people to turn to systems that promise redemption, immortality, or propose to give your life worth. This is why so many people find God on their deathbed. It isn’t always religion people turn to, however. People will seek out any group that tells them they’re of value, that tells them they’re superior. Where do we turn when the entire world is faced with its impending demise? What happens when capitalism, a system designed to define one’s worth by their place in an unstable financial hierarchy, is in its final stages? Nothing will change so long as people refuse to examine the role they’ve played. There’s no fixing a relationship if you’re unwilling to investigate how you helped sour things. There’s no ethical rap criticism until white critics examine their role in Black art, “Whitey stole the soul, came back around like we old friends/ Guess he couldn’t find a fence.” There’s no saving the environment so long as those in power attempt to conceal their role in destroying it.
woods has diagnosed all of this from behind the curtain with a grin on his face. “I got recognized at the butcher, like/ all due respect, are you woods or you not?’/ Said he recognized the voice from somewhere/ Listened to the tape and compared, over the years/ I forget white people is born police,” woods raps on “Trivial Pursuit,” referencing both the way he obscures his identity (woods notoriously blurs his face in pictures and videos) and white fans’ over-familiarity with Black artists. Once you’ve accepted the end there’s nothing to do but cry or laugh, for woods the decision is an obvious one.
Hauntology, as the late theorist Mark Fisher described it, is art that is preoccupied with the futures that never arrived. Not only is our collective future and our personal past ever-lurking in the shadows waiting to lurch at us any moment of any day, but so too are the futures we’ll never achieve. As history is forgotten – the histories of those oppressed by imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism because as we know history is written by the victors – it becomes impossible to change the system. Being so entrenched in capitalism renders us incapable of even envisioning alternatives. There is no future, the future is here and now, soon to pass.
Except there is something else we can do. We can do our best to make sense of it all; we can examine our role in it all and strive to be the best version of ourselves we can be once the ending comes. Life is a labyrinth, not a maze. There’s one way into it, one end to it. The route through, however confusing and fragmented it might be, is singular: there is only one way to the centre. Labyrinths are meditative where mazes are built to test one’s skills. A labyrinth is a place to dwell on history, on the past, reconsider the path, and look forward to the future(s).