Armand Hammer’s Guide Through History’s Underbelly

Armand Hammer’s Guide Through History’s Underbelly

Armand Hammer’s Guide Through History’s Underbelly

The New York rap duo’s searing songs shed light on outrages around the globe.

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Every Armand Hammer song is a rabbit hole. The New York rap duo likes to take a concept and burrow deep into its implications, turning a simple premise into a labyrinthine cave system. That’s the case with “Chicharrones,” the droll centerpiece to Haram, ELUCID and billy woods’s fifth joint album. The song is nominally about snitches and the police. But that’s just the surtext. As woods and guest Quelle Chris excoriate stool pigeons and cop-lovers, the aperture widens to address power fantasies. “Negroes say they hate the cops / But the minute something’s off, wanna use force / I just work here, I’m not the boss,” woods raps.

These kinds of artful, provocative pivots are a hallmark of ELUCID and billy woods’s style. For eight years, they’ve guided listeners through the underbelly of the 21st century, cataloging global outrages like the capitalist imperative to work or die and absurdities like Holocaust-denying Black Israelites. They are two of rap’s most poignant and imaginative contemporary storytellers. Instead of heroes and villains, they offer bystanders, cronies, descendants, precursors—oblique perspectives that complicate their globe-trotting narratives rather than resolve them. On Haram, they continue this roving anthropological approach to rap, using the titular Arabic word (meaning “forbidden”) to link tales of grief, joy, and everything in between.

The album’s production is helmed by the Alchemist, a veteran producer renowned for his extensive sound palette and easy compatibility. His willingness to adapt to rap’s shifts and his belief in the one act, one producer approach to making music have made him a fixture through several eras of hip-hop. For over a decade, he’s used that classicist approach to turn album-length collaborations (an artifact from a time when rappers and producers were often bandmates) into exquisite spectacles. When the Alchemist goes this route, he pulls out all the stops, tailoring his bespoke beats to artists’ whims and tics, and stuffing tracks with nods to his collaborators’ past work. Haram is cast in that mold, the Alchemist expanding Armand Hammer’s brooding, questioning music into a haunted tableau.

The record brims with sounds from across the Black diaspora, blending dub, soul, trip-hop, and underground hip-hop into an immersive fog. Drum patterns and film and vocal samples are warped, distorted, and obscured, providing no fixed reference points yet a range of textures. ELUCID and billy woods use these dense backdrops to leap across perspectives and settings, threading personal, imagined, and collective histories. “Wishing Bad” is a panorama of bitterness and confinement, the pair and guest artists Amani and Curly Castro weaving references to Michel Foucault, Notorious B.I.G., and a beloved sex worker into a mood board of spite. No direct links are made between these scattered subjects, yet the song is fluid, the vocalists’ disparate stories snaking through the menacing, bass-boosted beat. The song captures the dread and whimsy of a timeline without feeling random.

“Peppertree,” in which woods narrates a funeral and a repast, is just as freewheeling yet pointed. The song, parts of it delivered in patois, presents death as flux. The casket is grim yet regal; the burial pit is as menacing as a lion’s maw yet picturesque and peaceful; children weep profusely, but later laugh and play, their bellies full. As woods chants the first-person refrain, “When dem ride me down the roadduh,” the dead man sounds both defiant and relieved, the sad and festive aftermath of his expiration feeling like a deathbed wish granted. Though woods does not give this person a name, a cause of death, or a biography, the character feels real and embodied.

These constant shifts in perspective never feel jerky or abrupt, guided by the pair’s peculiar but graceful flows. Woods avoids backbeats like a fugitive avoids roadblocks, but his rhymes are sharply metered and eloquently delivered, and sink into odd pockets. His mercurial verse on “Sir Benni Miles,” named after the Harlem streetwear designer, shifts from third to second to first person with ease. “Some slowly go, some just vanish / Don’t make a promise you can’t keep / Don’t make a keepsake out of grief / I can’t promise anything / It’s pills to make you sleep,” he raps.

ELUCID, a more orthodox rhymer with a rich, wearied voice, is slippery in a different way. He tends to rap as himself and use his point of view to mark the limits of other people’s perception. “My new name colonizers can’t pronounce,” he boasts on “Roaches Don’t Fly.” “I believe in Black secrecy,” he asserts on “Scaffolds,” deflecting prying gazes. Sometimes, the border between himself and the world is permeable. “Learned to swim in a pool where a boy drowned last year / Wax in my ear / I heard voices I couldn’t make out in the deep end / When I dipped my head under / Come again?” he recalls on “Falling Out the Sky,” the album’s sun-soaked highlight.

Because most Alchemist beats emphasize atmosphere and tension, rappers tend to take a cinematic approach to his production. Previous Alchemist team-ups like Return of the Mac with the late Prodigy, and last year’s Alfredo with Freddie Gibbs and The Price of Tea in China with Boldy James, were hip-hop noir, the rappers cast as hardboiled rogues and the music stylish and gritty. ELUCID and billy woods tweak that tradition. Though Haram’s many characters and vignettes would be right at home in a Raymond Chandler or Donald Goines novel and darkness abounds, the album is also searching and playful. From the solemn stargazing of Earl Sweatshirt’s guest verse to the wry, free-associative puns that populate Quelle Chris’s feature to woods and ELUCID’s frequent use of cosmic and naturalistic imagery, a sense of flight fuels Haram. Armand Hammer’s characters are confined, but not condemned: They reach beyond their circumstances even when they can’t overcome them.

On the shimmering “Black Sunlight,” one of the group’s smoothest songs, both artists capture the beauty and relief of seeking such farfetched salves. “Some nights the sun shines, just gotta catch it,” says woods, literally wishing on a star. ELUCID turns inward for his solace. “With all that binds / We deserve to be up out our minds,” he says, a couplet that doubles as an explanation of the album’s wandering spirit. Sometimes a rabbit hole is a portal.

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