Armand Hammer alludes to macro horrors by guiding you through microscopic crimes.
If the East/West divide ever healed, no one told the underground. We might be long past the days of Tupac and Biggie and, outside of Kendrick Lamar’s proclamations of the world being his fiefdom, the pop landscape sees the United States as unified. But sewer rats and poets have longer memories and deeper grudges than record labels and radio hosts. Their arguments are of a much more scholarly niche though. The abstractness and nerdom of the West Coast revels in the sunshine. Even as Deltron 3030 warped through future dystopia, funk samples and strings calls up visions of white sand and bikinis. The East Coast is a jaded place, there’s no time for this sort of nonsense. It’s grit, grime, blood and other unsettling substances in the beats, and Armand Hammer are our finest providers of this.
Even pre-formation, the duo had a pedigree. Elucid was a New York mystic teaming up with D.C. native Billy Woods who had quickly drawn a cult around the enigmatic History Will Absolve Me in 2012. Woods presents himself as mysterious as MF Doom, though with less comic-book goofiness. While Doom’s mask might have outgrown the rapper, Woods refuses press photos and blurs his face on album covers but is always up for a longform interview. He seems annoyed that his physical form might get in the way of his words. “Every victory Pyrrhic/ Every live show forget the lyric” are his first rhymes on Paraffin, detailing his uneasy relationship with rap, the terrifying realization that delving into his own soul dredges up some nasty shit.
And the production dives into the mud with glee. Opener “Sweet Mickey” is a revamped version of El-P’s lo-fi space-age beats on Fantastic Damage, its percussion washed out and shuddering as Elucid spits. “Rehearsal with Ornette” does take an Ornette Coleman sax sample, but it only peaks out from the background slur, in a dreamlike slink. The wordless hook of “Black Garlic” is corrupted to the point where it doesn’t seem like human vocal cords could swirl out those notes. Paraffin briefly detours into jazz rap, but not the smooth vibes of A Tribe Called Quest. Instead, “Dettol” harkens to an earlier, spookier era. It sounds like the Caretaker’s misremembered, dementia-addled Dixieland, perfect for Woods to shout “‘The sunken place, I can’t stay/ You built it on Indian graves’/ The lead character exclaims.”
Hearing “normal” beats is nearly more startling than the ghostly loops they conjure up at the album’s beginning. Microdose “VX” rocks a shifting keyboard that stutters over white noise and splashing water, “Vindaloo” rides outlaw blues and “ECOMOG”’s celestial ensemble of harp and piano is beautiful, giving a sleepy vibe to Elucid’s plea of “All of my feelings I kinda write to/ No photos please, I got words.” But even then, the only true peer is Ka’s boomless boom-bap, all terror and tension hidden in the grime.
And just like Ka, Armand Hammer alludes to the macro horrors by guiding you through microscopic crimes. Album centerpiece “No Days Off” is built off a shouted hook of “You don’t work , you don’t eat!” That’s about as simple as the laws of capitalism get. “Don’t come through talking crazy, I’m babysitting my ex’s kid/ She only wanna know what time breakfast is,’ sighs Woods. The son of a revolutionary and a professor, Woods is well-versed in the economic systems trapping him, but even more familiar with the daily consequences. Run through all the police brutality numbers you want, but nothing hits like “Just to get to the point of the script/ Where a cop pull you over coming from your nine to five/ Inexplicably empty the clip” as a formality, not a horror story.
They’ve got their fair share of punchlines too (“I eat too much pussy to be a Rasta” smirks Elucid) ‘cause you can’t go through this much muck without a weird sense of humor to carry you through. But dread is still their main intake. Brief, violent dreams of escaping the rat race (“Ran in the bank like Jimmy Stewart/ Surround the bank J. Edgar Hoover/ The machine shudder, bolts rattle looser”) are flattened by watching the larger systems crunching through human souls. “Light skinned niggas chucking threes/ I wish ’em the best/ Beyond God’s law some exist,” but the only escape seems to be dressing up on TV, certainly not fending off scheme-hatchers while looking after your old girlfriend’s daughter.
Elucid begins the album with a prayer. “Bless the mamas locked behind the prison,” that’s about as light as they get. There’s no time for sunshine, surf or god here. It’s terrifyingly easy to get lost in Paraffin thanks to a penchant for beat switches and smoggy beats rolling into each other. Elucid and Woods are your twin Virgils through this limbo, occasionally warbling into hell.