Critics approaching Armand Hammer lean heavily on the term “density” to describe the seemingly impenetrable, purposefully convoluted and contradictory albums that billy woods and ELUCID set loose on the world. Undoubtedly, each release possesses its own dark magnetism; a shadowy gravity that, like a black hole, crushes social and personal ills to an indestructible singularity. As the project progressed, the duo seemed hellbent on retreating further into the labyrinth, wagering against all odds that they could and would build a better mousetrap to ensnare their already captive audience, anxiously pouring over their endless footness.
Last year, they extended the event horizon of this vision to its logical conclusion. Teeming with guests plucked from the razor’s edge of East Coast rap, Shrines was a sprawling masterwork of mutated funk, and it blossomed in the heat of a summer of rage. But it also confirmed the emergence of a secondary trend worming its way through Armand Hammer’s music, beginning with 2018’s Paraffin: little by little, woods and ELUCID were cracking open the basement door.
For every grim portrait of survival to be found on “War Stories,” the pair packed in a “Solarium” or a “Bitter Cassava,” throwing open the curtains and flooding the record with luminous production and effusive lyrics dealing in sweat-drenched lust and soft focus nostalgia. The sign on the door still spelled out DANGER, but the voices beckoned us in with a newly irresistible sweetness.
Though the prospect of a full album collaboration with The Alchemist would appear to threaten this delicate ascent, Haram is a bracing leap into this brighter future, with ELUCID and woods diving into the partnership with eagerness. The choice of dropping “Black Sunlight” only hours before the record’s release speaks to the excitement you can feel emanating from every corner of this project, the need to pour out these hidden feelings for all to see. Named for that which is forbidden by Islam, Haram insists on sweetening the pot, tempting you with immersive evils and infectious pleasures at every turn.
The sunnier moments on the album are where you’ll feel it the strongest, particularly on the production end: the ping-ponging saxophone and honey-dipped guitar of “Black Sunlight,” warped keyboards that gently curl into the stars on the dub-inflected reverie “Falling Out of the Sky,” the majestic piano chords and Summer Madness synthesizer pounding forward relentlessly on album closer “Stonefruit.” The final track in particular is astonishingly beautiful, shimmering high above the murky depths Armand Hammer usually occupy; the product of their very first session for the album, ELUCID says that his first listen filled him with images of “fireworks over a river” and woods claims that they instantly knew it was “one of the best songs we’ve ever made.”
Orbiting around Alchemist’s hypnotic loop, ELUCID spits out a hymn to personal growth. Unblemished optimism shines into his most heart-on-sleeve hook to date: “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.” Meanwhile, woods’ gothic imagination drifts towards romance, picturing a lover sipping rosé out of his freshly dismembered skull. It’s not entirely new territory, but it’s comforting to hear the pair stopping to smell the flowers, even if they’re growing in a graveyard.
Luckily for the horror fans in the audience, Alchemist doesn’t fuck with the formula enough to banish the ghouls and goblins you’ve come to know and love. With a light touch, he simply hands woods and ELUCID the tools they need to carry out their macabre excavations. Breaking in with a dramatic horn blast, opener “Sir Benni Miles” rides a grinding reversed bass and haunting soul sample stabs swap ghost stories from inside a waking nightmare. The situation is bleak and woods doesn’t mince words: “Ain’t no angels harboring/ 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.” On “Indian Summer” a buzzsaw siren flickers at regular intervals, and a flute sample ducks and weaves around ELUCID’s chilling warning: “Fast and pray for rain, but just a trickle/ Clean your own pistol/ I can’t walk them dogs with you.”
If you’re looking for an entry point into the Armand Hammer universe, Haram is unquestionably the one. Don’t let the fear mongering about density scare you off; true immersion requires delayed gratification. Crack open a few Genius tabs or take a trip to your local library. Make a night (or three) of it. The Alchemist’s production throws you plenty of rope, but it’s still sink or swim. So start swimming.
Essential Tracks: “Black Sunlight,” “Stonefruit” and “Chicharonnes”