Rapper Billy Woods is a gift for any producer. The New Yorker’s dense, dexterous wordplay has few equals in modern-day hip-hop, as does his preternatural ability to hear rhythm even when there is none. One of the many jaw-dropping moments of his performance at Polaris Hall last Tuesday was hearing him spit rhymes over a vast sea of drones generated by his onstage partner, producer Kenny Segal.
The two were a study in contrasts. Segal remained in one fixed position, gamely setting forth each track from his small array of gear but rarely moving to his own beats. Like the rest of us, he kept his eyes locked on Woods. The rapper paced the lip of the stage, sticking out his left hand to emphasize certain bars and tilting his head back as he ratcheted up the intensity of his delivery.
Even though the Portland stop came toward the end of the duo’s current tour, there was an impressive looseness to their set. Woods kept directing the sound engineer to adjust the lights to better suit the mood of the music. He and Segal futzed with the set list in real time. And, at one point, he chided himself for his lyrical predilections. “I really didn’t want anyone calling me,” he laughed, referring to a theme that ran through Hiding Places, he and Segal’s 2019 album.
The key moment, though, came during “Spider Hole,” a paranoiac song from Hiding. Woods switched it up slightly, softening one otherwise potent lyric: “No disrespect, but I don’t want to see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall.” The two-word addition at the beginning of the line, delivered to a sold-out room in Portland, suggests that Woods knows he’s on the cusp of mass acceptance. Best not to burn any bridges with one’s peers before you reach them