Elucid Casts Spells

Alexander Richter

Elucid Casts Spells

Alexander Richter

Spells. That’s what Elucid calls them. The New York rapper opens his new album I Told Bessie with a song called “Spellling,” and it’s not about arranging letters in the correct order. The title of I Told Bessie is a reference to Elucid’s late maternal grandmother and the time he spent living with her in Brooklyn. Talking about the album, Elucid slides into a sort of sense-memory fugue, talking about the smell of the food and the Westerns that were always on TV. Elucid lived with Bessie while he was actively making music, and in an interview with Martin Douglas from KEXP, he discusses the music he made as part of his connection with his grandmother: “Bessie heard all my raps. She’d hear me screaming at two in the morning, two in the afternoon. She heard all those spells being cast, you know?”

Elucid is one half of Armand Hammer, the avant-garde New York duo that’s arguably the greatest rap group on the planet right now. I’ve always thought of Elucid’s Armand Hammer partner billy woods as the slightly more traditional rapper of the duo. In his work, billy woods gets into heavy layers of history and symbolism, and he balances out a gut-level anger and an understated swagger. They’re both weird, and they’re both unafraid to use experimental, dubbed-out sounds and cadences that don’t fit any expected rap meter. But Elucid always seemed like the further-out of the two rappers — the one more in love with straight-up noise, the one less concerned with writing quotable bars. Elucid’s last full solo project before I Told Bessie was 2020’s SEERSHIP!, a single-track half-hour excursion that doesn’t feature too much actual rapping and that sometimes flirts with unlistenability. But after spending a week or so with I Told Bessie, Elucid’s whole style doesn’t seem as simple as that.

That’s the problem with any attempt to impose a narrative on art. Things are rarely as simple as the stories that you make up to tell yourself. When Elucid discusses his music, he never talks about attempting to subvert rap norms or anything like that. He just talks about getting beats from different producers and rapping over the beats that spoke to him. Elucid didn’t even sequence the album; he left that to billy woods, who serves as executive producer and who released the album on his Backwoodz label. On some level, the tracks on I Told Bessie are just straight-up New York rap music — verses over chopped-up samples and drums, everyone trying to creatively freak everything. But the album isn’t as simple as that, either. Instead, I Told Bessie is a New York rap record and an experimental freakout. Rap music is like that. It can be all things.

It’s pretty interesting to compare I Told Bessie to Aethiopes, the billy woods album that came out a few months ago and that remains my favorite rap album of the year thus far. Both albums are community affairs, made with the rappers and producers who come from the same corner of the rap world, and both are growers. They find grooves that don’t necessarily make immediate sense but reveal themselves over time. But woods seems to work within a tight framework, and everything about Aethiopes seems to relate back to his ideas about Africa, as seen from America. For the most part, I Told Bessie finds Elucid in a looser, more instinctive mental place. Both rappers say things that might send your mind spinning off in different directions, but Elucid’s patterns are harder to follow. I wonder if he always knows what he’s going to say on a track before he says it.

To listen to Elucid’s music, you have to make peace with the idea that you won’t always know what the fuck is going on. You will get lost. Elucid knows this, and at one point on I Told Bessie, he even lays it out in plain speech: “Words mean things but don’t have to.” Elucid’s words do mean things. Sometimes, he’ll come up with an image so poignant that it almost hurts to contemplate: “The world different from the back of a police car/ Mom look old, Daddy beat down and small.” Sometimes, he’ll just say some hard shit: “Snap necks like fine bones from the mackerel.” A few of his lines work as poetic ruminations on the fragility of human life, especially when life is assigned clear numerical value: “5K to put a body in the earth/ Twenty bucks to wear your face on a shirt.” More often than you might expect, he just talks about sex.

But Elucid will also come up with some shit that almost resists interpretation, brief bursts of language that you just have to feel. When he talks about “cracked teeth gathered in a pyramid,” I don’t know what that means, but it hits on some primal level anyway. His lines don’t have to make linear sense to work: “Blowin’ kisses at my opps in the Metaverse/ Gorilla Biscuits till my head’ll burst.” I am an easy mark for rappers shouting out hardcore bands, but is that even a shoutout? Does it matter? No. No, it doesn’t. At least for me, Elucid’s music works the best when I stop worrying about what stuff means and start letting myself feel things. That’s not always easy for me, but Elucid makes it worth the effort.

I Told Bessie works on feel. Tracks fade into a blur and then resolve into other tracks. Elucid sometimes stops his emphatic, raw delivery and slides into a moaning, melodic incantation. “Ghoulie” has a mostly-drumless beat that sounds like the sound effect in a movie when everything slows down and a sudden realization hits. (That beat comes from the Lasso, Elucid’s partner in the side-project duo Small Bills. In that KEXP interview, Elucid says, “I feel like I get on the Lasso beats and I start rapping about nature and shit.”) That track leads directly into “Smile Lines,” which sounds like doom metal that’s been dissected and carefully reassembled by aliens. “Split Tongue” could be an ancient prayer. “Jumanji” is neck-jerk boom-bap with its anxiety pushed out front and center. “Betamax” almost sounds like classic New York rap music, with its cut-up soul sample and its scratched-up hook, but its timing is just slightly off. Nothing falls where you’re expecting it to land.

This morning, I woke up at dawn and went to the gym. This was off-routine for me. My kids just got out of school for the summer, and that’s the only point of the day when I have time to get a workout in. I hadn’t had any coffee or Adderall when I got on those machines, and I felt like I was underwater even before I put I Told Bessie on my headphones. Elucid’s album isn’t motivational workout music, and I don’t know if I’d recommend using it in a setting like that, but it worked for me. When my brain was pure mush, I felt more connected to what Elucid was doing. I’m a music critic by trade, and I usually can’t listen to anything without drawing out mental diagrams. Elucid won’t let you do that. Spells aren’t supposed to be analyzed.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Consequence – “Blood Stain”
I think I’m done trying to figure out where Kanye West is in the greater scheme of things, but the man can still concoct a beautiful beat, and Consequence can still effortlessly float over it. I don’t know what that’s worth, but it’s worth something.

2. Tremayne – “Daddy Issue (Stuntin’ Like My Daddy)” (Feat. Backxwash & Charlie Noiir)
I like what they do here, but Tremayne and Charlie Noiir are new to me. Backxwash is the reason that I hit play on this one. As much as I love hearing her rapping over her own industrial-metal cacophony, it’s cool to hear her going hard over a straight-up rap song, albeit a gothed-out one like this.

3. Nardo Wick – “Riot”
Nardo can say that he’s going to start a riot in a half-asleep murmur, and I still believe him.

4. Kid Cudi – “Do What I Want”
I didn’t know that I needed to hear Cudi copping a Project Pat flow, but I’ll take that over everything else he’s done in the past however many years. The voice on that guy.

5. Scorcher – “Ops” (Feat. Tion Wayne)
The open secret about UK drill: It’s a whole lot closer to grime than it is to Chicago drill. That’s a good thing.

FURIOUS FIVE

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