Alright, here goes… Armand Hammer are a New York-based hip-hop duo comprised of elusive underground rapper billy woods and producer & rapper ELUCID. They’ve been at the forefront of some of the craziest, darkest, Imost philosophical and political hip-hop of the last decade. Whether we’re talking about their dark and skeletal 2017 classic ROME or their dynamic and sonically diverse 2020 album of the year contender Shrines, they have surpassed expectations with each and every release, bringing a breath a fresh air with cerebral and quotable raps that are beautifully poetic and equally as haunting. They’ve been prolific the last few years, both as a collective and individuals. billy woods has had an incredible run in the last two years, with 2019’s Hiding Places with Kenny Segal and Terror Management, as well as the 2020 classic BRASS with the enigmatic and always captivating Moor Mother. ELUCID has similarly had a stellar few years, with the 2018 gem Shit Don’t Rhyme No More and the 2020 masterpiece Don’t Play It Straight with The Lasso as Small Bills. And here we are, in 2021, the world is pretty much still in lockdown, still dystopian and depressing. If there’s any group or duo to capture the angst and worry of our current reality while bringing a dose of history and philosophy through poetic wordplay, it has to be Armand Hammer, doesn’t it? This time around, they joined forces with one of hip-hop’s most revered and respected producers, The Alchemist. The result is Haram, a striking new collaborative album (not only by album cover – more on that in my review), with dreamy, often dark and heavy instrumentals complementing the political and wildly observational lyricism that set the tone for a reflective, heady and poignant listen.
Firstly, the album cover. A bit grotesque, isn’t it? Two pig heads, recently slaughtered. My immediate response and what I associated this with (in the context of current affairs and socio-economic issues), is police. Thinking back to the Shrines album cover, the NYPD officer holding a rope, looking at the tiger from a safe distance, in control. On this album cover, the pigs aka the police are dead, executed, devoid of power and authority. Quelle Chris’ feature on the standout cut “Chicharonnes” perfectly captures the theme of both the cover and title ‘Haram’ – an Arabic term that translates to forbidden or unlawful. On the chorus, he proclaims: “Oh, oh, if you off the pig / Is you offin’ pigs or offerin’ figs / Oh you big and bad? / Blowin’ hay and sticks, huffin’ bricks / Clip the snout (Snout), to spite the mouth (Mouth)”. It’s imporant to note that Chicharron is both a dish that usually includes fried pork belly or fried pork rinds, as well as a derogatory double entendre used against police officers, and it is done to perfection on this track, with a dark and unsettling tone throughout set by Alchemist’s desolate beat. Quelle Chris sounds mean and aggressive throughout the track, perfectly capturing the angst and dystopian energy throughout not only the track, but the album as a whole. And what a start to the album it was. “Sir Benni Miles” kicks the project off with a dark, atmospheric beat and an insane billy woods verse to kick everything off. “Dreams is dangerous, linger like angel dust / Ain’t no angels hovering / Ain’t no savin’ us, ain’t no slaving us / You gon’ need a bigger boat / You gon’ need a smaller ocean / But here’s some more rope / Barefoot in the bush burnin’ dope”. Angel dust, being a reference to both PCP and a Morlock character from the Marvel universe (The Morlocks being an underground group detached from society), is used to emphasise the lingering feeling of detachment from society, politics and the world around him. billy woods’ ability to create these skeletal and ominous poems throughout makes his presence throughout the entire project striking and important. On the incredible “Scaffolds”, billy woods states – “Group therapy, I poured the kerosene in, group watched the fire leap / A shred of truth is all a liar need / It all the burn the same when the fire feed / Men rack our brains over past deeds / Indeed the ground’s cold but the bones not deep.” His cadence and flow throughout this track is crazy, and while I’m still trying to decipher the meaning of this, (I’ve got a few interpretations!) it’s his tone and delivery that makes this line hit. His verse on “Robert Moses” is crazy too, as he references one of the most influential public officials in New York in the mid-20th century. His agencies built hundreds of square miles of parks and public beaches, and vast networks of bridges, tunnels, and highways to connect them to the city–devastating numerous neighborhoods through which they passed. He was deeply racist and was known to basically destroy lower-income neighbourhoods by building high-rise buildings and other infrastructure. billy woods proclaims “Lock the meteorite in a black box / R.I.P. murals but also, fuck the opps”, with true intent. It’s not only his incredible skills as a poet and storyteller that makes him such a captivating emcee, but also how he articulates his thoughts and the power behind his words that makes him great. He absolutely killed it throughout this expansive project, helped by incredible beats by Alchemist, and a rhyming partner in ELUCID that brings a good balance to the duo’s incredible chemistry.
Speaking of ELUCID, his presence on Haram makes this album such an incredibly potent and memorable listen. I’ve been a fan of his for ages, and with each project he proves why he’s one of the greatest writers of this generation. While woods’ verses feel darker in tone and messaging, there are plenty of empowering and optimistic thoughts ELUCID’s able to articulate through his raps throughout the album. On “Black Sunlight” with KAYANA, he proclaims “Smile n***** / Trials rendered in my full expression, stressin’ (Ayy) / Pressure cookin’ then I got your message, blessin’ / Honor self, picking pocket, finding joy, blowing off the lid”. Focusing on empowerment and self-love, his animated voice and flows make him a perfect companion to billy woods’ darker, more political raps. On the haunting yet beautiful “Aubergine” featuring the always flawless FIELDED, ELUCID proclaims “Fully charged, I’m a sun, I’m a star / I got range, I know just who I are / Weave what he want and it’s still on the one / ‘Cause I wander, don’t mean that I’m lost / ‘Cause I wonder, don’t mean that I’m stumped / Bending wills to exactly what I want / I’ve been hunted, I’ve been shielded, I feel love here”. These raps are a therapeutic reminder that everyone is in control of their own journey, and highlights the importance of being in the moment, something he states earlier on the track. The way he raps and is able to articulate his thoughts is so relatable. It’s as if billy woods is the philosopher of the group, and ELUCID is the psychologist almost. “Stonefruit”, the album closer, sees ELUCID sing “I don’t wanna lose control / But I can’t cramp my space to grow / Comfort’s dull but gets us through / I got so much left to undo” on the chorus. Trying to break free from external factors and influences to fully reach his full potential. There’s a lot more to his verses throughout the album, and I’m not going to pretend like I’ve understood or correctly interpreted absolutely everything he’s staid throughout the album. But there are so many memorable ELUCID lines and verses to delve into and take in. His vernacular is like a sponge throughout Haram, and I’m still trying to soak in all of what he’s saying. But this is what I love about this project, it’s one to analyse with years to come.
Alchemist’s production throughout Haram is equally as soulful as it is harsh and disorienting. From the incredible, dark and moody opener “Sir Benni Miles” to the wild and reversed horn groove on “Peppertree”, his ability to create challenging soundscapes for both emcees is exactly what I wanted and expected from this album, and I wasn’t disappointed one bit. It’s Alchemist at his most experimental, and some of the beats on here are among my favourite of his ever. The haunting keys and driving groove on “Scaffolds” and how that flows into the lighter and more ethereal “Falling out of the Sky” featuring Earl Sweatshirt, the vast and spacious beats make for immersive listening experiences. Earl, by the way, absolutely killed his verse, referencing his father – “My father body swollen behind my eyes / I ain’t cry for him in time to return solo”. It’s such a powerful way to tribute his father, his creativity and poetry living actively through him. The dark and bass-heavy “Wishing Bad” features Amani and Curly Castro, who delivers an astonishing verse – “Public enemy number, carry the one / Icarus melted his wings, he tried to carry sun / Georgetown wasn’t all good, Othella Harrington / Vic Page went eye for an eye until he carried guns”. Bringing Greek mythology, sports references and political commentary, Curly Castro’s verse was a standout on the album, and it’s all brought together musically by Alchemist’s incredibly dense and eclectic production. The sequencing throughout the project is incredible too. One thing I noticed was how many film references there are throughout. A 1997 David Lynch interview was sampled on “Falling out of the Sky” on dreams and the importance of dreaming as a way to bridge the gap between consciousness and unconsciousness. I was surprised to hear a First Reformed sample on “Robert Moses” – “Can God forgive us? For what we’ve, uh—done to this world?”. For those who haven’t seen the Paul Schrader written and directed 2017 film, it’s about a pastor of the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York, who is struggling with a crisis of faith, having his views challenged and call into question, then going to seek answers for himself. It’s an exceptional film, and one I definitely recommend checking out. The sample is kinda chilling to me, representing the worst in humans and our propensity to destroy rather than build. I’m fascinated by film references in music, more importantly how they bridge the gap between certain lyrical themes and the cinematic audio quality of the music. Alchemist is able to create that kind of sound that perfectly captures this cinematic, animated aura that meanders between angst and optimism. This is something I’ll have fun discovering further as I listen to this album more.
Simply put, Haram is an exceptional body of work that further cements Armand Hammer’s legacy as one of the most important duos in hip-hop. It’s not only their deep love and appreciation for poetry and film, but their intelligence, thoughtfulness and energy throughout the 14 tracks on this album that make them a unique voice in music. Alchemist cemented top 3 status for me personally. The beats throughout are so eclectic and diverse, yet musically they all fit perfectly with Armand Hammer’s sense of urgency and action. The samples, the synth and keys-led melodies, the hard-hitting bass-heavy beats – everything is just produced to perfection, and with so much love. Haram balances urgency with reflection and introspection with frustration, on an album that sounds cinematic and detailed, both in terms of lyrical themes and sound throughout. billy woods and ELUCID haven’t even peaked musically yet, I’m convinced more incredible projects will follow, but for the time being all I want to do is immerse myself in this musical journey and experience for months and years to come. Thank you billy woods. Thank you ELUCID. Thank you Alchemist. Thank you Backwoodz Studioz. And thank you to everyone else involved with the creation of this masterpiece. Go support!