Album Review: Armand Hammer – We Buy Diabetic Test Strips

[Fat Possum; 2023]

In 1913, Aleister Crowley released his treatise on ceremonial magick, The Liber ABA, Book 4. Therein, he speaks of the ability to manipulate one’s way of thinking in order to further the soul and magickal awareness, and proposes the following: “Let him constantly watch, if convenient, cinematograph films, and listen to phonograph records, reversed, and let him so accustom himself to these that they appear natural, and appreciable as a whole.”

This idea follows the philosophy attributed to a key phrase of The Emerald Tablet: “as bove, so below” – the idea that a reversal ultimately returns the action to its purpose. Invocations become banishment rituals, light becomes dark, good becomes bad. Following Crowley’s popularity in rock music circles (with John Lennon placing the writer on the cover of Sgt Peppers’… and Led Zeppelin communing with Kenneth Anger) his ideas spread into popular culture, and fuelled panic in fundamentalist Christian circles. To this day, the technology of backmasking carries an ominous, but enticing aura of something forbidden, hidden within.

Opening up their sixth album, Armand Hammer – the NYC-based duo if billy woods and ELUCID – choose this strange technique to mask a very intimate phone conversation between a man and a woman: 

– “Hey whats up, what you doing?”
– “Just got out the shower.”
– “Oh! Oh, word… uhm, well, I’m in town, and I’m trying to see you tonight.”
– “Let’s make it happen. Just tell me where to meet you.”
– “I’m downstairs a little.”
– “Come on up!”

It’s not enough that this loops back to the album’s closing track title, a phrase which would follow by logic: “The key is under the mat”. Throughout the opening “Landlines”, the male speaker also repeats the word nine, which is mirrored on itself, literally sounding like “ninety-nine” no matter if you play the track forwards or backwards. In numerology, 99 stands for a deep love and kindness – humanitarianism, if you will.

While hip hop ontologically seems closer to alchemy than magick – the ‘cooking’ of beats and samples which, combined and refined, create a new substance; woods and ELUCID have by now acquired the strange aura of shadow walkers, cloaking themselves in hauntological images, conjuring ghosts and demons. Add to this woods’ consistent approach of hiding his face to remain unseen and the duo resemble mage-like interpretations of the Wu-Tang Clan’s spiritual aesthetic.

Still, they’ve strayed far from horrorcore. Instead of bathing themselves in clear darkness, they usually venture into a vast array of places and situations, which often transform into each other, like dreams. Thus “Landlines” would all be mere references, if there weren’t strange currents running throughout We Buy Diabetic Test Strips: next to political and Biblical allusions are recurring motifs of occultism and Egyptian culture. ELUCID references the “Left Hand Path” himself in “Total Recall”, while Cavalier, in a guest spot on “I Keep a Mirror in My Pocket”, muses “I once copped from woods, ain’t been the same since / The Thebes librarian, features Ramsian”. For the record, the Theban library is still considered the most important surviving magical archive, with it being the centre of magic during Roman times.

But these are merely recurring themes and not an overt concept. There’s no journey from one place to another, dusk to dawn, or – hell – one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth. Thematically, We Buy Diabetic Test Strips at times feels like the two rappers are sages connected to infinite knowledge, inhabiting the time stream, digesting every moment written in the big book of destiny and spitting it back out in code.

An example comes with “The Gods Must Be Crazy”, when woods raps: “White women with pepper spray in they purse / Interpolating Beyonce / Illegal Formations”. In those three simple lines, he references Hillary Clinton’s interview on The Breakfast Club, pandering to the hosts, and the Black community by proxy. On “Trauma Mic”, ELUCID builds a direct mirror reflection of a whole host of subjects by twisting them on their axis: “Neo-folk, trauma mic, echo chamber, deep fake / Fake deep, talking wound, say it to my face, n___a”. Referencing neo-folk with the N-word is an inspired move, to say the least. Another personal favourite comes during “When It Doesn’t Start With a Kiss”, where woods provides the brilliant: “My crypt a multi-layerered pyramid, Ponzi / Scissoring Seth is engraved in the concrete”, likening himself to the godlike pharaohs of Egypt, while also connecting the trickster-deity Seth with the Ethereum cryptocurrency shortcut sETH, somehow effortlessly reconnecting with Crowley’s obsession of Egyptian spiritism.

In other places, woods’ and ELUCID’s bars are more abstract and careening through images of sex and drug deals, drawing from an inner logic only the two seem privy to. This is in line with the complex, surreal production style, which is their most complex backdrop during their collaborative career yet. Almost scratching on industrial hip hop, there is a great tendency of sonic experimentation present, adding some speed manipulation to the backmasking and a lot of obtuse micro-sampling. This leads to a more cyberpunk sound than the duo ventured in previously, and fits with the two JPEGMAFIA collaborations present (Armand Hammer and Peggy have squashed a short beef, opening the door for future features). The first – the brilliantly titled “Woke Up and Asked Siri How I’m Gonna Die” – resembles the vaporwave of early Oneohtrix Point Never productions with its pitch-shifted choirs and glitched beats, hidden messages and moaning women, even dropping a guest appearance from Siri’s A.I.-organ.

“Switchboard” is another incredible example of this style: shifting and stuttering, the song feels like the recording of overlapping cosmic radio signals, echoing voice-calls, electrical bursts, mechanical breathing and the ringing of an unanswered phone included. Lyrically, the track is disorienting: ELUCID focuses on a character who jumps from one body to another, almost like a modern version of Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep”, leading to the disturbing bars “She say she saw my other face when I’m inside her / I looked around, wiping my saliva / Who’s that peeking through my eye slit? / Showing up unannounced / Who’s turning time to speak?” In his verses, woods returns to the recurrent theme of phone calls which transcend the physical realm (“Fell asleep trying to write and woke to the beat bludgeoning / Feel it in my teeth like electric current / Circuits circling, circling, buzzers / Missed calls from my own number”), and announces the passing of his mother, only to return home to his partner to find the cellar door opened – did his mother’s ghost pay a visit, or is his lover unfaithful and an unwanted guest exited?

Either way, entrance couldn’t have been hard, as the following track reveals: “The Key is under the Mat”. This second Peggy-collaboration is more ethereal than the first, seemingly incorporating a slowed down sample of the Playstation 2’s opening chord. Like a spaced-out Alchemist instrumental, it almost functions as an ambient backdrop, which fits with the lullaby-theme of the lyrics. Here, woods and ELUCID reflect characters who are both gangsters and partners. As they put their children to bed and face their girlfriends (woods: “Princess and the Pea but it’s a Glock 9 under the mattress / Valley of Death in the shadow of those lashes”; ELUCID: “Whispers / Bedtime story, lullaby, lingerin’ kisses / Put that baby bitch to bed / You fuckin with my head”), their inner perspective shifts to that of pirates (woods: “Passionate siren song / I shoulda been lashed to the mast / We locked in, flashing knife / Fashioned from anything we could find”; ELUCID: “Salt and air, we can feast by the fire / Pretty clouds, pretty stormy in the center / Snatching embers to hold in my pocket / Soot in my fingers”). They ultimately signify that they are strangers to their own families, ghosts haunting their own houses.

A seeming throwaway line delivered by ELUCID in the track “N___ardly (Blocked Call)” addresses this, once again returning to Egyptian myth: “Laid a feather on a scale and ripped my heart out / Weigh it up”. Is this why the cellar door of “Switchboard” mysteriously opened?

This key ultimately connects the record’s many detached threads. If we follow Walter Benjamin’s perspective on the mystical qualities of telephones, we understand that the apparatus, besides being a device of social communication, also opens up the uncanny within the closed off safe space that is the home – a process that the Germans poetically refer to as unheimlich. Benjamin describes the sudden ringing as an urging, sinister demand that cuts through the household’s quiet peace, the disembodied voices speaking from afar seem to him like those of a ghost, and his father’s interaction with the apparatus – either growling at operators or handling the calling wheel with the frenzy of a dervish – as frightening. His childhood self musters the courage to pick it up, and acts like a medium, obeying the haunted voice’s every demand. Benjamin wasn’t alone in being scared by phones; cultural artefacts like Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter” firmly root the telephone as a tool for communication between realms, transcending time and space as well as life and death. woods acknowledges this in “N___ardly (Blocked Call)”, fantasising a moment of revenge: “When your end come, you’ll be alone / When the end come I’ll actually answer the phone just to drink your pain”. ELUCID is a little more poetic here, but just as threatening: “LED numeric trigger, sucking air out of my lungs quicker / Blocked call, voicemail still hit ya / Like building walls / And throwing dead pigeons over”.

woods and ELUCID have mused on the inability to adequately communicate the internal struggles of the Black experience many times before, but it seems like We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is their most inspired work in this regard. Telephones become a tool for transgression of social taboo, both conveyor of desire and death, all while personal communication remains hampered by repression-fuelled inner division. The two souls that inhabit the father/gangster archetype themselves remain as separated and distant as voices in a phone conversation, only allowing expression in the ultimate reunion of the two: rap and… sex.

“Supermooned” explores this dichotomy, hinting at George Washington’s affair with an enslaved woman and referencing woods’ coupling with a spirit/mutant woman in “Cossack Wedding” from his album Church (her identity shrouded in darkness and remaining a mystery). Here, the spirit realm and racism during Washington’s time become inextricably linked, fashioning similar experiences of abandonment: “From other worlds they came / To other worlds they returned / I stayed here through it all to watch the fire burn / She slipped away in the garden maze amidst the twists and turns / She called for me with a laugh, from where I couldn’t discern”. These characters become mediums possessed by past history of Black experience which – like ghosts – dictates their existence, from the traumatic power imbalance within the United States all the way to antique times of arcane knowledge. Time is a flat circle!

The miscommunication that is at the heart of this dialogue continues to infiltrate even the translation of rap. “Trauma Mic” – a diss track whose music video finds the group acting as junkyard operators – has woods cleverly comment on misheard lyrics: “Them n___as ain’t dyin’ for you / It’s the other way around if you actually read it” (the implication being that “ain’t” here sounds like “they’re”). The two here highlight how hip hop, as a genre, is all too often pandering to white audiences, its core philosophies now merely an aesthetic to acquire money. The closing lines find woods delivering another incredible bar, referencing the Biblical story of Bathsheba: “Any one of you bums could be Jesus / Fingers numb, tryna work the light / That white like Mother Theresa / Hype when I first laid eyes on Bathsheba / Bust down, middle part, big laugh, she still called grass ‘cheeba’ / Missionary ’cause I know God see us”. Take note that this coupling, in the Bible, brought forth King Solomon, the author of the notorious Lemegeton, also known as The Lesser Key of Solomon, the grimoire that so much of Crowley’s work is rooted in – another key that is hidden under the mat, one that opens very specific doors!

We Buy Diabetic Test Strips goes deeper, darker than any of Armand Hammer’s previous albums. It even eclipses woods and Kenny Segal’s stellar Maps as the best hip hop record this year, at least so far. Where that record followed an almost coherent timeline, the third track on here almost comments on what a folly that perspective was. On “The Flexible Unreliability of Time & Memory”, time is reduced not to a period, but singular experiences and short bursts that define and change us. As the refrain repeats: “Certainty is a circle, I don’t believe you”. woods plays with this notion, hiding a jab at overzealous cultural archeologists: “My records spin like a band saw / My record speak for itself, don’t try to add-on / I suggest you leave the police sketch half-drawn”. The song also hosts ELUCID’s possibly strongest statements, which defy interpretative analysis just by their sheer quality and beauty: “Many multiplicities / I’m living every mystery / I’ma come if you send for me / Under the moon in a place to bury / Sweating through silk, feeling small / It’s but a moment, but I owed me more”. woods’ bars debate division as a recurring motive, which occurs within all systems, be it family, the state or black culture: “A house divided, pick sides for the civil war / (…) The choice was: Kevin Samuels or Dr. Umar Gentlemen, the choice is yours / But I assure you Jimmy Baldwin not coming through that door”.

So who is coming through that door – the lady that opens the record with her backmasked phone call? Well, she’s asleep, and can’t be reached by phone: “Hey uh, I just woke up. Can I call you back later?” The call never comes – the door was always closed.