Armand Hammer & The Alchemist Made Something Great Together
You knew. As soon as those fucking disgusting chopped-off bloody pig heads showed up in your timeline, you knew. Less than a month ago, the announcement arrived up on Twitter: a title, a release date, those pig heads, “an album by Armand Hammer & The Alchemist.” No tracklist. No advance music. All that came later, but none of it was needed. All you really needed was “an album by Armand Hammer & The Alchemist.” This was going to be special. And it is special. Haram is here now, and it’s everything those pig heads promised.
It’s not a combination I saw coming. In recent years, Alchemist’s production has been soft, blissful. Even when working with a fundamentally bleak rapper like Boldy James, Alchemist has specialized in mood, in creating an enveloping sensation. Armand Hammer, on the other hand, have been all about rupture and unease. The duo of billy woods and Elucid exist on the furthest edges of underground rap, getting deep into the psychic wages of late-capitalist cog life over bent, jagged music that seems designed to reflect the unease that you should be feeling in your stomach — always, constantly. Alchemist isn’t exactly mainstream-adjacent anymore, and he’s found his niche crafting extended collaborative works with sharp, incisive, typically underrated rappers. And yet Alchemist still has a day job as Eminem’s tour DJ. The fact that he found his way to billy woods and Elucid feels miraculous.
I’ve written about this before, but a decade and a half ago, I spent an afternoon with the Alchemist. I was working on a Village Voice profile on Just Blaze, and I’d shadowed Just while he ate pizza and went record shopping. (In one expensive vintage-record boutique, he met Dan The Automator.) Later on, we went up to Baseline Studios — the place were so many Roc-A-Fella classics were made, and which Just had bought. The Alchemist was in there, working with Just’s protege Saigon on an album that would never come out. At the time, Alc was working on Mobb Deep’s ill-fated G-Unit debut Blood Money. Alchemist said that the Mobb Deep album was good but “there’s no singles on it.” Rather than redirecting the conversation, Just Blaze calmly and wordlessly reached over and hit stop on my tape recorder, and the conversation kept going. I got to sit there, absorbing everything these guys were saying. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.
At the time, Alchemist’s onetime mentor DJ Muggs had just finished making Grandmasters, a collaborative indie album with the GZA. The Alchemist seemed intrigued. Back then, Just Blaze and the Alchemist were still working with to some of the biggest names in the history of New York rap, but they saw things crumbling. Every big album had to have a bunch of R&B hooks and poppy club tracks. The South was taking over. Nobody was buying music anyway. I got to publish some of that Just Blaze/Alchemist shop-talk here, and everything they said was fascinating. Just: “I remember people used to try to play me MF DOOM, and I’d be like, ‘Turn that off now.’ Now I’m to the point where me and him might even do something together.” Alc: “I started realizing the real love is from those kids, man, in the underground. And even though it’s a lot of shit in that world that I don’t really love, I like what it represents. That’s why I’m starting to lean to that shit. I’m going to make an album for that world, tour those venues.”
Alchemist has been making albums for that world for a long time now. He’s great at it. That’s what’s special about Haram — or, at any rate, it’s one of the special things about Haram. As rappers, Armand Hammer write dense, allusive, emotional lyrics — lyrics that demand total immersion and multiple open tabs. They deliver those lyrics in flat, hardbitten snarls, often fighting upstream against their beats. You can dig into what woods and Elucid are saying for days, and you still won’t catch all the references. Sometimes, listening to them, I burrow deep, pausing and rewinding, trying to get a fuller picture of what they’re saying. Sometimes, I let it wash over me, and the odd phrase will jump out and land hard. (Right now, I’m living with “The transcript read like Cam’ron skits/ Something wrong with motherfuckers, I don’t know what it is.”)
With Haram, Alchemist tailors his sound to the warped, woozy aesthetic of past Armand Hammer records. He’s not trying to yank woods and Elucid out of the the style that they’ve established. Both woods and (especially) Elucid can practically ignore drum patterns, so Alchemist just keeps the drums out of it. Instead, he builds loose fantasias out of old psych and jazz records, letting sounds flutter along. But Alchemist’s beats are still warmer and richer than what we’re used to hearing on Armand Hammer records. The music creates an expansive deep-breath feeling that’s far-removed from the claustrophobia that comes so naturally to the duo. Maybe that music is what puts woods and Elucid in a more sensual place. Maybe that’s why Haram finds them remembering warm California nights or mornings at sleepaway camp in the Catskills.
But Haram is still an Armand Hammer record. It’s still about power and control and the way systems are rigged to continue use people as batteries. (It seems fitting that Haram is coming out just as Armie Hammer, the movie-star great grandson of Armand Hammer’s vampiric oil-exec namesake, is being outed as a monstrous patrician predator himself.) Some of the best lyrics on Haram are galactic-view Foucauldian shit: “A thousand plateaus, a constellation of prisons/ An ocean of archipelagos, an algorithm,” “Smoke and fire, light and sound/ My new name, colonizers can’t pronounce.” Some of them are sly but loaded one-liners: “I put a neat hole in Indiana Jones’ fedora.” Some parts will send your brain scrambling to catch up: “Freefall, limbs flailing in the blackness, hundred-hands slap/ Pardon self, sinkhole blast landed/ Earth move for a new gold standard.” Others are self-explanatory: “You gotta kill the cop in your thoughts.”
In a recent Washington Post piece, Alchemist says that he learned about Armand Hammer from Earl Sweatshirt and calls the duo’s music “the purest expression of art.” Alchemist is right, and he’s not trying to fuck that expression up. Haram is not an accessible Armand Hammer album. I don’t even know what an accessible Armand Hammer album would be. But Haram is an Armand Hammer that gives your mind room to drift. That alone is something special. It was always going to be something special.
1. Young Dolph & Key Glock – “Penguins”
The beat hypnotically needles as two Memphis masters casually, confidently talk high-grade shit. That break in the middle is perfect: “Oh, that how you coming, Glock? OK.”
2. Bruiser Wolf – “Chess Move$”
The latest artist to come out of Danny Brown’s Bruiser Brigade crew has a delivery that’s part preacher and part stand-up comic. If he sounds like any other rapper, he sounds like Suga Free, but he really doesn’t sound like any other rapper. He’s genuinely funny, too: “Eightball, side pocket! This is billiards!” “Sold more white lines than Adidas! I’m Red Auerbach! You’re Brad Stevens!”
3. 30 Deep Grimeyy – “4530” (Feat. Sada Baby)
30 Deep Grimeyy, from St. Louis, has enough wild knucklehead energy to keep up with Sada Baby. For that alone, he demands your attention.
4. Sauce Walka – “Kolourz” (Feat. Rico Glizzy)
Sauce Walka has the rare ability to talk shit mournfully, and he also has the rare ability to misspell the word “colors” in three different ways at the same time.
5. Flee Lord – “Wallabees & Gucci Loafers” (Feat. Ghostface Killah & Roc Marciano)
Two legends caught fire on this track, and I’m worried that people didn’t even notice. Do not sleep on these recent DJ Muggs albums.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO