Haram reflects an impressive collab between the disparate sonics of Armand Hammer and The Alchemist, even if it’s not a peak for either party.
In the musical and cultural ecosystems of rap, in which the perception of authenticity is often an asset, Armand Hammer loom large. The duo of billy woods and ELUCID, elder statesmen of sorts whose careers began relatively late in life, make hardened, calcified music describing misadventures so specific that their assumed fiction is easily called into question. This rough-hewn approach hasn’t stymied the growth of their audience, spurred on by recent (relative) crossover records like 2018’s Paraffin and billy woods’ 2019 release hiding places. But despite the modest acclaim, Armand Hammer have remained steadfast in their non-conformity. On “Bitter Cassavas,” the opening track from Armand Hammer’s fourth album Shrines, woods bemoaned his misplaced generosity and compared himself to the RZA, while ELUCID continued to marinate in life’s simpler pleasures. The narrative perspective is mirrored in their approach to making music, usually bringing rappers and producers into their imagistic fever dreams, rather than instead moving towards anything resembling an indie rap mainstream.
That isolated perch may change after the release of Haram, Armand Hammer’s first album since last year’s shrines and their first working entirely with one producer: storied hip hop guru The Alchemist, fresh off high profile 2020 collaborations with Boldy James and Freddie Gibbs, among others. The announcement of their team-up made some sense, given their shared interest in creating boom bap that acknowledges the passage of time since its heyday, though Armand Hammer’s corroded palette seemed potentially at odds with Alchemist’s gauzier productions. Fortunately, the resulting album further extends the recent winning streaks of both parties, with woods and ELUCID’s narratives fitted into a selection of Alchemist beats that successfully split the difference: scuzzy by his standards, but regal by Armand Hammer’s. ELUCID solo cut “Roaches Don’t Fly” is one of the album’s most triumphal tracks, with Alchemist’s piercing guitar licks providing an almost cinematic backdrop to ELUCID’s expressions of self-determination. “Scaffolds” and “Stonefruit” are similarly extroverted affairs, the latter featuring a striking, sung hook from ELUCID and a billy woods yarn about being sexually and physically consumed by a vampire. Alchemist’s organic, direct instrumentation offers moods more readable than Armand Hammer’s often inscrutable recent work, though — fittingly — not all moods are good. On “Indian Summer,” a properly menacing billy woods swears vengeance on the human race over a sparse flute line whose relative quiet escalates the song’s threatening tone.
Vampires aside, Haram’s lyrical concerns aren’t radically different from those of Armand Hammer’s recent past, dishing out scathing critiques of rap’s ruling class and the difficult realities of life on the fringes. Perhaps the most notable change, outside of Alchemist’s involvement, is a proportional one. Though one assumes a certain amount of fiction in any artistic offering, Haram’s increased quotient of stories operating within a ‘90s rap paradigm set it apart from Armand Hammer’s recent efforts, scanning as their first work as legitimate storytellers rather than autobiographers. Given the prior credits of their chosen producer — and the cadre’s high volume of group and solo output in the last year — the pivot into pulp fiction isn’t a surprise, but does run the risk of cheapening their supposed authenticity. Tracks “Wishing Bad” and “Squeegee” don’t radically deviate from the shock tactics and bass-snare revival of other recent Alchemist production recipients, more serrated though they may be. Haram’s cover — a decidedly non-haram portrait of two severed pig heads — also clangs with the considered portraiture of Armand Hammer’s recent album art, and instead recalls the bathroom snapshot that graced the cover of Pusha T’s DAYTONA, another picture seemingly chosen with “tastemaker” (rather than tasteful) rationale in mind.
Tactical and aesthetic concerns aside, a victory lap by Armand Hammer’s standards is still a very good album by anyone else’s, and the duo surely deserves it; lines like woods’ call-out of rappers who overuse the experience of being shot for cred on “Aubergine” are proof positive that the group’s disdain for rap industry politicking remains intact. Their identifiably true stories, if less frequent, are also no less meaningful, as on the Earl Sweatshirt-featuring “Falling Out the Sky.” All three rappers strike a wistful tone, circling significant memories and reflecting on them with piercing hindsight, though woods’ short story is perhaps the most memorable, recalling a summer job on the west coast and the mental quiet that comes from a new set of circumstances. One hopes that Armand Hammer’s deserved success and the elevation of their artist profile doesn’t preclude the possibility of future slice-of-life moments like this happening and, eventually, ending up in their music.
Published as part of Album Roundup — March 2021 | Part 4.