Cult status isn’t something attained easily or by traditional means. New York hip-hop duo Armand Hammer got it through hard work and relentless avant garde sensibilities, given an extra layer of nightmarish funk on their new album Haram by legendary underground producer The Alchemist, who hands all production duties. The group, made up of rappers billy woods and ELUCID, has always approached hip-hop from a slanted view, like an angrier, more polemicized version of Griselda. Their music reminds you that Cannibal Ox and Uncle Murda were both looking at the same skyline. While billy woods' recent collaborative album with Moor Mother pushed the art form to the very limits of its self-imposed limitations, Haram is a plunge into a dizzying stew of half-formed loops, samples and ideas which mutate and gestate before your ears.
A hip-hop album using the same core personnel throughout will always be a more compelling listen than one with a revolving cast of collaborators, which often end up sounding like a compilation of unrelated singles. Armand Hammer and The Alchemist have clearly been furiously brainstorming the sound and structure of the whole project. Alchemist creates a psychedelic noir soundscape, sprinkling his magical blunt dust everywhere. There is a tangible sense of dread which would be underpinning all music right now if everyone was true to themselves. Even Justin Bieber admitted things weren’t all tip-top in TikTok land on his new album, doing his bit by throwing Martin Luther King samples over piss-weak heartbreak fluff. Armand Hammer do their bit by informing you that it could all come crashing down at any given moment and wishing you luck.
Album opener "Sir Benni Miles" emerges from the sample soup to deliver an ominous sermon, Alchemist’s beat sounding like Madlib three days into giving up weed. billy woods goes straight for his big book of evocative poetic devices in his opening verse, defiant from the off. “Dreams is dangerous, linger like angel dust /Ain't no angels harboring /Ain't no saving 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 burning dope.”
Even beats from such an illustrious luminary as The Alchemist are forced into a supporting role by the power and conviction of ELUCID and billy woods’ words. They could make the most seemingly menial encounter sound like an epic battle for the very fate of our species and have you anxiously awaiting the outcome.
The straight-ahead soul loop on “Black Sunlight” is denied the opportunity to be uplifting by the helpful reminder from ELUCID that any meaningful human interaction can only be achieved through bitter struggle: “With all that binds / We deserve to be up out our minds /Black prioritize, cup runneth over, what the heart provide/ I got five on my shoulder, drawing closer in these darker times.”
Alchemist brings his best Griselda-style drumless loops a few times in Haram, firstly on the track “Indian Summer”, lending a hypnotic quality as the flutes dissolve into the background and the vocals lose none of their intensity. “God’s Feet” sees Alchemist’s trademark crackling drums join the doomsday party, as the group wallows in death and promises resurrection.
Earl Sweatshirt manages to peel himself out of self-imposed exile to make a typically laconic appearance on “Falling out the Sky”. His brand of obtuse, medicated wordplay fits the trifecta like a glove, contributing solidly to the dysfunctional family affair. The prolifically talented Curly Castro follows straight after over a sparse kicks-and-hi-hats beat with saxophones and pianos duelling it out in the distance. The track sounds like a modern-day Taxi Driver vision of New York, and Castro grimly recounts the night of Biggie’s death in the city. “Stowaway in the back of the car, Biggie bled / All the clocks, Brooklyn went cold the night that manifest / No one on Church Ave made a sound until it came correct /A pound of flesh was needed to scale when time to pay respect /Fuck Puff, survivor's remorse should keep him fucked up /Riding out on a warhorse, leave dummies dumbstruck.”
The final instalment in this consecutive trilogy of features is art-rap virtuoso Quelle Chris, who turns up on the track “Chicaronnes” and does his usual job of chewing up the scenery. His bugged out flow seems to warp its surroundings and his observations stay laced with sharp humour, even when discussing pig dismemberment in minute detail.
Each of the contributors to this album has understood the dynamic perfectly and executes their part to perfection. The commentaries on race, society and the human condition are carefully interwoven in a sprawling, cut-and-paste tapestry, best consumed as a whole project to really appreciate the scope. A special shout has to go to the line “Josef Stalin, styling on em,” on the track “Robert Moses”. Soviet leader wordplay is a surprisingly tricky feat to pull off.
As you may have gathered, it’s not a guaranteed easy ride the whole time, and may struggle to convert your casual Radio 1xtra listener, but for lovers of confrontationally experimental music, it ticks the boxes with unnerving aplomb. Unblinking glimpses at the dark underbelly of life will never be everyone’s cup of tea, but Armand Hammer make no concessions for anything but their creative vision, which also doesn’t blink. Get the album here and set an evening aside.