Over the past decade or so, Armand Hammer have established themselves as one of the most enigmatic, thought-provoking and fascinating groups in hip-hop. Composed of New York artists ELUCID and billy woods, their desolate, abrasive and experimental soundscapes make for an eerie, unsettling sound. Coupled with usually introspective, political and anti-establishment lyrics throughout, their music is often dense with a plethora of complex themes, their music requires attention and multiple listens. Their 5th studio album is titled Shrines, and comes at a pivotal time in American history. Racial tensions throughout the country (and now globally) haven’t been this fiery in a very long time. From the striking album cover to the introspective, intricate raps throughout, this album is a fascinating study on the black experience in the US, capturing the angst and frustration living in a near-apocalyptic reality. I will try my best to breakdown some of the themes and details of this album, but this might need a few more listens to truly appreciate.
One of the first thing I noticed on this album is how varied the production is throughout the 14-track album. From the Earl Sweatshirt produced opener “Bitter Cassava” ft Pink Siifu to the funky Messiah Muzik produced closer “The Eucharist,” the album contains both spacey and claustrophobic soundscapes, mixed with funky and punchy grooves that completely drew me into their sound upon first listen. As far as production goes, the Child Actor produced “Charms” ft KeiyaA, the Nicholas Craven produced “King Tubby” and the Andrew Broder produced “Frida” ft Quelle Chris and FIELDED (my favourite track, more on that later on) are highlights for me personally. It’s really the dynamic and colourful soundscape on this album that makes it one of the more interesting releases so far this year. Tracks like the August Fanon-produced “Pommelhouse” bring some striking lyrics, especially from billy woods. Apologies in advance if I misquote, but lines like “With that mortgage, tornado insurance will be my old lady’s coffin” and “Snatch negroes off porches / Took the curtain down odds incorporation corporation remorseless (?)” is a striking and frightening commentary on the immoral and evil realities of the current capitalist system. It has been discussed since the recent protests began that in order to ensure full socioeconomic freedom for Black people in the US, capitalism must be abolished. The modern capitalist system we live in the western world has existed for a very long time, and it has always resulted in oppression, vast discrimination and a cycle of poverty for millions of marginalised groups. If we’re being radical, the whole economic system under which we operate must fall in order to make room for a more equitable and inclusive system for everyone. Their anti-establishment and ant-capitalist stance is firm throughout. As mentioned, “Frida” with Quelle Chris and FIELDED is my favourite track on the album. The eerie piano keys, coupled with Quelle Chris and billy woods’ incredible flows throughout make for a captivating listen. ELUCID’s delivery on this track is absolutely incredible, as poignant, metaphoric lyrics like “A hundred fifty roses in an ocean of milk / Light leaped on the camera, smoke how it feel” are incredible. The back and forth billy woods and ELUCID have on the Kenny Segal-produced “Dead Cars” featuring R.A.P. Ferreira is truly phenomenal. Another highlight on the album is the Andrew Broder & Navy Blue produced “Ramesses II” featuring Moor Mother, Earl Sweatshirt and FIELDED. Moor Mother had the best feature on the album hands down, as she imagines a sort of Black utopia, leading a “glamorous life” is her verse. “Matriarchal golden crown, drum on water / Sky walker, I’m like Nina in the jungle with diamonds / In a black panther night to the Nega King Leopold / The glamorous life, yeah,” she states, in an attempt to construct an ideal, female-led future. Earl Sweatshirt on the other hand provides a heavy, personal verse, stating “Eyes baggy, wire transfer haemorrhaging blood money bags / Under the eyes, gotta crash, display stolen artefacts,” as he describes his eyes and overall being as a museum displaying stolen artefacts from his own identity. The deep rooted history of slavery and colonialism has resulted in generations of men and women who still struggle to find a lost identity within themselves, twisted and corrupted by white, western societies. “Roll up on a map, I know where I am / Blood stain on my father’s father’s land,” is a poignant reflection of that. The closer “The Eucharist” features a single but incredible verse from billy woods, who’s dystopian imagery and tone is chilling, leaving me unsettled, but hit with the reality of the current life and system we, and Black people in particular life in at the moment. There is still a lot of work to do to dismantle institutions and the system altogether, but I’d like to think that there’s hope.
Shrines is an exceptional body of work that acts as a dystopian yet truthful commentary on socioeconomic issues in America. Both billy woods and ELUCID as Armand Hammer excel as emcees, bringing an incredible cast of producers to design the desolate, soulful and idiosyncratic soundscapes for the album. All the features are stellar throughout, and while I know I haven’t delved deeper into a few of the records on the project, I’m going to have a lot of fun revisiting this album for months and years to come. Big up both of you, you guys are incredible! Shoutout to Backwoodz Studioz too.