Armand Hammer’s Paraffin Is A Disorienting Rap Masterpiece
“Service weapon in my face, all I could see was his lips chapped.” That’s billy woods, one half of the New York rap duo Armand Hammer, on “Dettol,” a song from their new album Paraffin. He’s rapping, in hard and dense clusters, over a staggered loop of strings and pianos, the kind you might hear on the score of an old ’50s melodrama. His voice has echo splattered all over it, and so does the sample, as he tells a story about a traumatic encounter with a cop: “Wouldn’t recognize him if I saw him today / Chokehold slowly closed the airway / The Sunken Place, I can’t stay.”
We don’t learn whether the story is a real one from woods’ life. Woods only tells a quick shard of narrative, a brief and fractured glimpse at a moment in life. It’s one of the more coherent extended moments from Paraffin, and yet it’s not really coherent or extended at all. It’s a moment of intense, life-altering stress, and Paraffin is full of those. Maybe woods is rapping about his own life, or the life of someone he knows. Maybe he’s rapping about Eric Garner. Maybe it’s just a moment pulled out of the air, a tiny piece of American life. It doesn’t matter. Because it’s somebody’s story.
Woods and Elucid, his partner in Armand Hammer, have been making music as a duo for years now. They’re both solo artists, and they both have plenty of solo records to their credit. But Armand Hammer isn’t an occasional side project. It’s a constant. They’ve now made three albums, including last year’s impressive Rome, as well as a mixtape and an EP. Paraffin is one of the best rap albums I’ve heard this year, and if it’s anything to go on, Armand Hammer isn’t some shits-and-giggles between-albums thing. It’s a vocation.
Elucid and woods aren’t young. In their work, you can hear echoes of the skronked-out New York rap underground of the early-’00s Def Jux years. Elucid even sounds a little like Aesop Rock sometimes, whereas woods is a more classic head-down bulldozer, as precise and gritty as a ’90s boom-bap veteran. But both of them make music that pushes their voices further and further left, into the realm of noise and chaos. Beats slowly decay or dissolve and then snap, without warning, back into focus. Samples echo and fizz. Sometimes, the drums do classic neck-snap things, and sometimes they’re barely there. In some ways, their sound works as a natural conclusion of the early RZA aesthetic — an entire ominous world built out of broken, beaten, disappearing sounds.
Paraffin isn’t an experimental rap album in any sense I’ve heard before. It doesn’t sound like Kool Keith or Antipop Consortium or Dälek or Death Grips. It sounds like classic New York rap that’s been detached from its moorings and pushed out to sea. Elucid and woods rap hard, delivering their words with force and conviction. Sometimes, they treat the beats like mere suggestions. But then, they’re rapping on beats (many of them produced by Elucid) that could only really exist as mere suggestions — corroded psychedelic snaps that demand flexible rhythmic approaches. It’s freaked-out, fried, overwhelmed music. And that makes sense. “I’m in a constant state of rage,” Elucid mutters on “Rehearse With Ornette.” That seems like the only sane way to operate in 2018. We’re all disoriented from walking around with our guts unable to unclench, and the sonic bedlam of Paraffin reflects that.
Like a lot of the best albums of 2018, Paraffin is an extended meditation on what it’s like to be black in America — a place that’s always been hostile to blackness and that’s finding ways to make that hostility even more obvious. They’re not rapping about Trump. His name never even comes up. If anything, Elucid implicitly indicts Hillary Clinton when he calls himself a “super-predator-era veteran.” But it’s not an album about anything as distinct and observable as a single person, or a single political moment. Instead, it’s about existing as a human in a society that denies your humanity, about how disorienting that is: “To be seen and not seen at the same time is a mindfuck / Black buck.”
Armand Hammer aren’t above the sort of fly-shit word-salad flexes (“Bacardi in sicario’s Ferrari”) that fellow post-boom-bap iconoclast Roc Marciano has perfected. And sometimes, they toss light shots at their more-famous rap peers: “Your favorite rapper’s a corporate shill who dresses like a banker in they spare time.” But they’re not a typical underground rap duo, and neither one of those things is the point. The point is to describe the world, as they see it, in disconnected clumps of words that are heavy with meaning: “My least meal was my own heart / You’ll take the deal if you’re smart,” “You can search far and wide for a hill on which to die / The rent’s still too damn high.” Sometimes, their voices dissolve into the storm, and you can’t even make out the words. That’s the point, too.
Elucid has been busy in 2018. Thus far this year, he’s released the solo album Shit Don’t Rhyme No More and No Edge Ups In Uganda, a full-length collaboration with producer Haj. He’s also one half of Nostrum Grocers, a duo with abstract-rap cult hero Milo. Nostrum Grocers released a great self-titled album less than a month before Paraffin, and it occupies some of the same aesthetic territory, though it’s lighter and sillier, more rap-for-rap’s-sake. All of that is worth hearing. But Paraffin is something special, a dark and dense and unsettling album that, if you let it, will pull you into its wavelength. The fractured, scrambled images on the album — like the image of that cop with the gun and the chapped lips — are things that will stick with you. And they’re things that should stick with you.
1. T.I. – “Jefe” (Feat. Meek Mill)
T.I. is an afterthought on his own song, and that’s fine. The first thing you need to know about “Jefe” is that Meek Mill is in full adrenalized breakneck yelling-at-everyone mode, which is the best Meek Mill mode. The second thing you need to know is that producer Bangladesh, gone too long, has gone full cartoon-bounce, turning a tootling mariachi horn into an apocalyptic salute. T.I. sounds great on this song, but who can compete with all of that?
2. Dizzee Rascal – “Money Right” (Feat. Skepta)
Why does event-grime work so much better than simple standard-issue event-rap?
3. TeeGlazedIt, Lil Chicken, Jigg, Mari Boyz, BHG, Gwapo Chapo, Looney Babey, Lil Axion, & WeUpNexxt – “No Hook”
Milwaukee! Who knew?
4. Kenny B – “Percky”
There’s a long stretch on this song where Kenny B is rapping over silence, and it doesn’t sound like lunchroom-style a cappella rapping. It sounds like a whole new frontier in minimalism.
5. Lil Baby & Gunna – “Drip Too Hard”
Lil Baby: “I know they hating on me, but I don’t read comments.” Lil Baby is smart.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Cardi B leaving a New York Fashion Week party 2018 // “Resurrection” by Dieric Bouts 1455 pic.twitter.com/GBDE13Lpmf
— Ryann Reyes ✌🏼 (@ryannreyes) September 8, 2018