The cult hip-hop duo gets an assist from The Alchemist
Alexander Richter/Courtesy of the artist
Armand Hammer‘s music takes patient ears to decipher. There’s a dexterity to it; social commentary is swaddled in layers of thick poetry and equally dense production. Yet the approach cuts both ways: If you get the music, you love it, but it can be tough to comprehend for those who don’t already have a palate for the rappers’ pondering flows.
For nearly two decades, billy woods and ELUCID have established themselves as cult figures in hip-hop, appealing to listeners who prefer the grit of late ’90s underground rap over mainstream opulence. But where acts like the Griselda collective recall the morose street tales of Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep, Armand Hammer evokes groups like Cannibal Ox and Company Flow, crews whose music scanned as avant-garde.
The duo’s outstanding new album, Haram, is produced solely by The Alchemist; the noted beatmaker’s recent record with rapper Freddie Gibbs, Alfredo, was up for a best rap album Grammy at this year’s ceremony. Armand Hammer comes to this project having released three stellar albums in just four years, along with other solo material that became fan favorites. Records like BRASS and Hiding Places (woods’ joint albums with poet Moor Mother and producer Kenny Segal, respectively); and ELUCID’s S*** Don’t Rhyme No More and Don’t Play It Straight (with producer The Lasso) have nudged the rappers to almost-mythical status.
Not only does Haram come with more star power than their previous albums, courtesy of The Alchemist, it’s the most approachable, even if the rhymes are still intricate. Conversely, the beats seem paired back to let woods and ELUCID shine the brightest. That’s not to diminish the Alchemist’s work on Haram; his scant drums and billowing synths properly convey bleak, labyrinthine environments.
In recent years, likely due to the social climate, there’s been a rush to call Armand Hammer’s music apocalyptic or dystopian. (“I get why people say that, but it’s played out,” ELUCID once said.) Perhaps heeding the group’s call, the beats uplift in certain spots, like on the sunny “Falling Out The Sky,” and the emotive “Stonefruit,” a straightforward loop of ’70s-leaning soul. But when you’re working with rappers like woods and ELUCID, the best thing to do is fall back and let their showstopping rhymes take the floor.
Across Haram, an Islamic term meaning “forbidden,” the rappers dissect all things taboo, and how, ultimately, those commodities are still ubiquitous across cultures. From its cover art, a jarring close-up of two bloody severed pig heads; to the album booklet, with pictures of a weed joint, gun, and a Jamaican rum box, Haram centers these topics, pivoting between darkness and light while offering nuanced looks into their respective pasts. You have to lean into the song “Indian Summer” to catch woods recall the days of mowing lawns and going home “stinking of gas in the evening.” Blink and you almost miss ELUCID, on the Earl Sweatshirt-featured “Falling Out The Sky,” recollecting his time in “God’s country … few hundred miles from hot garbage and smog.” Other times you can’t help but key in on seemingly random nods to Wesley Snipes’ taxes, the Allen Iverson “practice” rant, and ELUCID’s pledge to slapbox TV judges Mathis and Wapner. Haram is full of yin and yang moments like these; bits of clear-eyed nostalgia are met with tight lips and screw-faces.
“Chicharrones” toggles between the different connotations of pigs. woods likens them to police and weak dudes: “Got caught with the pork,” he raps, “but you gotta kill the cop in your thoughts still saying ‘pause.'” Moments later: “Your crew fragile like the Caucasus, as the Balkans is / It’s one n**** who nice, the rest sausages.” Guest rapper Quelle Chris lyrically dissects the animal while chastising modern-day groupthink: “We let B.L.M. be the new F.U.B.U.,” he quips.
Other tracks aren’t so mysterious. On “Scaffolds,” woods tussles with regret while ELUCID swats queries about his style: “As it pertains to how I freak it,” he states, “Yo, don’t ask me no questions, I believe in Black secrecy.” That lyric explains Armand Hammer more than any other in its discography. Between his ratatat cadence and woods’ conversational pace (along with his refusal to show his face in photographs), the duo emphasizes the art of rapping and furtiveness as separate thematic linchpins. Even for the staunchest listeners, the meanings of Armand Hammer’s lyrics don’t always hit right away. There’s often a delayed reaction to their music, and it’s easy to get lost in how exquisite the rappers sound. They’ve always been in another dimension; it’s on us to catch up.
Much like MF DOOM or Madlib, Armand Hammer keeps the focus on the music itself, crafting kaleidoscopic work that gleams no matter the back-story. So a song like “Stonefruit,” Haram‘s sublime concluding track, not only imparts yearning, it flexes rhythmic skill. Here, ELUCID sings of his need to break away, his husky, gravel-throated baritone resting perfectly in the beat’s pocket. Then woods ends with a story that only he can tell — something about a woman who wore his teeth in a necklace, drank blood from a horn, and howled into his neck after sex. “She dragged the bones home and built a bed!” he exclaims. “She drank rosé out the skull, but held it gentle as my living head!” I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure human sacrifice is haram.