Album Review: Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – Haram
by Brandon Jolley // Somewhere A Little Deeper
Armand Hammer is a hip hop group from New York City composed of two artists: ELUCID and billy woods. They released their first creation as a group, the mixtape Half Measures, back in 2013. Since then, they have recorded six more albums together, winning awards in multiple online music outlets. Earlier this year, they released Haram, featuring none other than The Alchemist as their sole producer (save for “God’s Feet”, co-produced by Earl Sweatshirt.)
What results is their most cohesive album yet, keeping all the excitement and ingenuity as their previous creations. The term haram is a double entendre. The word has two meanings in Arabic: forbidden in a sense of humanity not being pure enough, and forbidden in a sense of something evil to be done. Armand Hammer and The Alchemist take it upon themselves to recreate this dual meaning in the album.
Al contributes his signature lush and perfectly subdued, but punchy, drums throughout, but also pierces through the veil with some dissonant tones (note the semitones played together on “Indian Summer”.) Al even told the group that he wanted to “come into their world” and mix the two production styles.
Meanwhile, ELUCID and billy woods don’t break a sweat ousting their contemporary emcees, comparing them to the Westworld reboot in “Aubergine” saying: “recyclin’ the same shooting / Rappers tired, inertia the only thing keep ‘em movin’/ Glassy eyed in the stu’, that street date looming (You know who.)”
They also let Quelle Chris spit in “Chicharonnes”: “We let BLM be the new FUBU, we ain’t bros / Wake up like Dap, hollerin’ at HBCUs.” But they’re just as comfortable detailing a hook up with “Stonefruit”: “She drank the Rose out the skull but held it gentle as my living head,” or flexing that ELUCID went to a fancy restaurant and got an off-the-menu dish.
It is a testament to the duality of the group. billy woods claims the album is an exploration of spirituality, desire, what is forbidden, religion, and other topics that the duo want the listener to explore and interpret as their own. The topic of desire is immediately preached in the opening track in “Sir Benni Miles.” It starts with an intro from the movie Babylon, interrupting the listener’s frame of mind for billy woods’s effortless but brutal verse to cut through: “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.”
The first two lines are directed towards those of the black community. He’s saying to not be optimistic, don’t believe in your fairy tales of desire. You’re going to have to bust your ass to get to where you want to be, because there’s no one out there to help you. In the third and fourth lines, however, he directs his verse to everybody else. He says, there’s no way of dominating blacks anymore. With the ocean metaphor, even a bigger boat won’t be enough, so go ahead and hang yourself. This metaphor also serves as dark humor, conjuring up images of the slave boats used to transport Africans to slave owners in the New World and the ropes used to lynch African-Americans before and during Jim Crow.
As for Al’s work on this track, the way the distorted synth rises up out of the piercing drones sets the unhinged and uncomfortable mood for the rest of the album perfectly. The subtle tinkling manages to sound warm under Al’s hands and the percussion gives Armand Hammer plenty of room to work with while being in ¾ time to lend to that uneasy tone. In regard to the warm tones, perhaps the greatest example of this is in “Black Sunlight”. It helps that the track was actually inspired by a fellow New York rap artist climbing through the charts: MIKE.
According to an interview, ELUCID remembered a MIKE show while writing the beat, reminiscing on the rapper’s smile and stage presence while in the pocket. Once ELUCID had the image in mind, he immediately called up KAYANA to assist on vocals. She starts the track with the line she repeats throughout the song. Immediately woods barks his verse out in contrast to KAYANA’s soft, airy voice.
What Al lacked in dissonance in the production, woods more than made up for it in jarring lyrical content. He manages to find an audience in the stock-expert following/wall street bets population that grew exponentially earlier this year by name-checking Bear Stearns in the lines: “Shorted ’em like Bear Stearns / It’s not a aberration, this how it work / Chuckling at the investigation.”
Bear Sterns was the bank that helped contribute to the 2008 stock market crash by short selling stocks. When the CEO was investigated for his responsibility in the crisis, he was able to walk free, and Armand Hammer claims that’s how easy it is for those flushed with wealth to escape punishment. A few lines and a slowed down bar of production later, woods begin to beat on behavior toward black people with: “Iridescent blackness /Is this performative or praxis? / Are we talkin’ about practice? (We talkin’ bout practice, man) / Rock the kufi backwards.” Iridescent blackness- blackness that changes based on the angle you have of it.
As crimes against those with darker skin seem be publicized more frequently, the responses of consolidation and strength made by white politicians seem to increase. Many of these politicians have brought woods to ask, “Is this really real? Do they actually care about us? Or is this some publicity stunt, getting as many views as they can right before the next election cycle is here?” It’s an important question every white person should ask themselves, from Dems in Congress to people reposting “Justice for “*black person unjustly murdered*” on their Instagram stories and calling it a day.
On the topic of KAYANA featuring, Earl Sweatshirt also makes an appearance on the sunny “Falling Out the Sky”. Al finds a dripping reggae beat for Sweatshirt and Armand Hammer to reminisce on. Earl reflects on his father’s death, regretting not being with him earlier, reminding the listener that forward is the only direction. Lethargy and swagger infuse into his lyrics. Finally, Al drops a fantastic Little Richard sample when the verse is over.
“He was a star, when he, when I got him, he was a star
Sly told ya that everybody is a star
The only problem is some people haven’t been put in the dipper
And poured back on the world
woods remembers a trip to the west coast he had in his 20s, with the shit job he had painting houses, his jaw dropping at the price of weed, and the feeling of “like you could disappear, like I wasn’t surrounded by the past.” There’s even a David Lynch sample in between his and ELUCID’s verse, a sampling decision based on cinema that has been a constant throughout the album.
I just finished watching the new season of Twin Peaks before I listened to this album the first time, and I was just immediately transported back to that binge session (Lynch’s best work by the way, definitely recommend.) ELUCID finally hops on the track for the last verse, continuing the nostalgic trip. He reaches into his childhood, with memories of growing up: “group calisthenics in morning fog”, “back of the annex / Past bedtime kissin’.”
He doesn’t leave out the not as innocent side of childhood as well, describing “baby powder homey socks” to land on the kids who fell asleep first at summer camp and “Thumbin’ 70s Ebony mags, drippin’ red ICEE on the pages.” He ends the verse with one of the best lines in the album “learned to swim in a pool where a boy drowned last year,” and Al just elevates the listener even further by lowering the backing samples cutoff to make it sound muffled and underwater, raising the listener back above water by the time we transition into “Chicharrones.”
Ultimately the group ends Haram with what they considered the very best song on the album. Most albums have the “best” song near the beginning in order to hook the listener in, but with “Stonefruit” Armand Hammer and Al asked themselves, “How are we gonna follow that up?” So they don’t.
What immediately caught my attention is the singing, not rapping, that ELUCID elicits. He immediately starts preaching his views on love and relationships with “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.” Of course, ELUCID keeps this verse broad enough to describe his feelings towards all types of relationships: romantic, platonic, corporate, etc.
This chorus sounds anthemic almost, not just in the beat but in ELUCID’s singing as well. He’s proud of his views of love. It’s the view of love from someone who’s constantly looking for someone else to complete him. No better line to represent this than: “What I need but you’re not all I need, that’s impossible.” The idea is liberating, I think, for both parties. For the lover, you have the satisfaction of not being tied down to a single person, you don’t view this person as a savior from the heavens here to save you. For the loved, you don’t have the pressure upon yourself to fulfill every one of this lover’s hopes. You’re both free to live your own lives.
So many of us rush into relationships to make yourself feel loved, but are we happy with them? Some people find that comfort to be the only thing that gets them through. Through to what, though? Eventually you end things, they’re unfaithful, maybe you stay with them for months, or years, finding yourself wanting to end things but don’t because you’ve both been together for so long. Maybe you learn to love yourself if you’re lucky.
Even then, the concept of love enters the question. What is it? A feeling? Knowing someone? Surrender? A societal construct used as a plot device in Titanic? I don’t know. What I do know, is that wood’s final verse on this track is killer, and that this easily climbed my album of the year list and I’m excited to see the output this group produces in the future.
Listen to Haram here and keep your eye out for the Fall 2021 show schedule to catch Brandon’s show, Somewhere A Little Deeper.