Album Review: Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – Haram

[Backwoodz Studioz; 2021]

Armand Hammer – the underground duo of billy woods and Elucid – rap heavy and very deep. For almost two decades now, woods has crafted some of the most intense commentary on American society. His lyrics aren’t for the weak at heart; he tells us exactly what he’s thinking, and most times it’s a lot to unpack. Elucid matches woods on almost every level, showing tremendous maturity for an artist with half the years under his belt. The expansive vernacular of both is untouchable in the game – very few can match their rhymes, and their content exists in a darker territory than even the most controversial performers dare touch. On their fifth album, Haram, the twosome are back to not only twist the knife, but to pull it out and thrust it in again.

Working exclusively with the most in-demand producer of our time, The Alchemist, woods and Elucid have torn a few pages from the MF DOOM playbook, and opt for atmospheric story-telling. The consistency provided by The Alchemist takes Haram’s flow to a level unparalleled by anything the tandem have produced before. Previously, Armand Hammer have pushed closer to the center of underground rap, like on their already classic 2018 album Paraffin, where they slashed their way through bars with nods to pop accessibility. There’s none of that on Haram, at least not in that sense.

Instead, Armand Hammer have focused all their energy on the theme of forbidden natures, hence the title Haram. The stomach-churning cover art sets the stage – pork is an Islamic forbidden meat. The bloody pig heads act as placeholders for the duo (woods never shows his face in publicity photos), who rap about topics that aren’t necessarily kosher. The bleakness of woods’ first verse on the opening “Sir Benni Miles” isn’t a harbinger of suffering – the suffering is already here; “Ain’t no angels harboring / Ain’t no savin’ us,” he raps, before firmly stating “Ain’t no slavin’ us / You gon’ need a bigger boat / You gon’ need a smaller ocean.” After a chaotic 2020, woods isn’t letting up on his assessment of culture. And while it’s no always clear just who he’s pissed off at, what’s important is that this faux freedom he sees in his home isn’t cutting it for him anymore.

This isn’t the mainstream rap that’s overstuffing our airwaves, this is that dirty area of rap that big labels and podcasts wanna steer clear of because its attack on the system is just too on point. On “Black Sunlight”, Boston vocalist KAYANA adds a smokey lounge vibe, trilling “you bring the skies out,” and Armand Hammer pair it with their signature duplicitous approach; woods takes shots at Wesley Snipes but Elucid offers a glimmer of hope in his words, “I don’t want the rift, blood / I don’t want to explain self / I don’t want to constrict love / I want world care.” Such is the nature of Armand Hammer; woods leans more into aggressor role, while Elucid pushes closer to the middle to bring some balance to their message. Make no mistake though, neither of these two powerhouse rappers are holding back on Haram.

Elucid gets the show to himself on “Roaches Don’t Fly”, where his tips to slavery and violence never cease to create dark imagery that resonates in the soul; “My new name, colonizers can’t pronounce / Bounce per ounce, what counts? / Kill your landlord, no doubt.” Connection to the forbidden pork results in some of woods’ most distinct bars on “Chicharrones”, which also features the immutable Quelle Chris who delivers one of the album’s most potent rhymes; “We let BLM be the new FUBU / We ain’t bros / Wake up like that, hollerin’ at HBCUs.” And while that’s not an attack on the movement, it does lob criticism at those who wear the shirts and make the noise just for their own attention.

Earl Sweatshirt makes two appearances on the record, only one in front of the mic, on “Falling Out The Sky”, where he nearly steals the show. Topping his assist on last year’s Shrines, Earl’s bars here are some of his rawest words; “My father body swollen behind my eyes / I ain’t cry for him in time to return solo / We on the ride forward, the reverse not workin’ / Sometimes it collide, the black sky full of supernovas,” a reference to his time between I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside and Some Rap Songs. Earl’s not alone in his despair, but the beauty of Haram is the way it tugs at heart strings one moment and boils your blood the next. Both woods and Elucid have been churning out at a high quality rate for several years, and bringing along of host of incredible voices like Earl and Quelle has helped them reach higher than ever before.

In a striking departure though, Haram features two tracks that are unlike anything else in the group’s history. On “God’s Feet” we’re treated to woods and Elucid not rapping, but legitimately singing, slowing it all down for a moment. The credits show Earl Sweatshirt assisting The Alchemist here, and its similarities to Some Rap Songs are subtle but present, while Elucid’s rap verse tosses in a Nick Cave reference to finish off one of the group’s strangely intriguing moments. They take it to a whole new level on album closer “Stonefruit”, where Elucid sings the chorus in a 70s funk style waltz. It’s a jarring conclusion made even more unique by woods’ verse on casual sex that ends in morbid but humorous fashion; “She finished on top and howled in the crook of my neck / She dragged the bones home and built a bed / She drank rose out of the skull, but held it gentle as my living head.”

Haram is a tremendous success, largely due to the powerful lyrics by its antiheroes. It is built to make you uncomfortable, from its harsh cover art to its incendiary lyrics. woods’ intent with this project is made clear on “Indian Summer”, where he raps “I swore vengeance in the seventh grade / Not on one man, the whole human race / I’m almost done, God be praised.” Whatever the past did to woods isn’t the point here, the goal here is to keep us informed and maybe make a difference, no matter how difficult it might be. This is what Armand Hammer have always strived for, but Haram feels like the truest representation what they set out to do at the start of their journey as a duo. As a result, it finds them asking the questions everyone is avoiding.