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Armand Hammer - Paraffin Music Album Reviews

The latest release from billy woods and Elucid continues their hot streak. Even as they take on weighty societal issues, the pair maintain a light touch and a near-telepathic bond.

One summer in the mid-1990s, a young woman from Santa Cruz was renting an apartment in Harlem, off 139th Street. Earlier that same summer, she’d introduced her boyfriend—who had just finished his freshman year at a nearby college and who often stayed at the apartment with her—to a 16-year-old rapping prodigy who was evidently very into comic books. The two young men became fast friends. One day, burglars broke down the door to that apartment and stole, among other things, the young woman’s entire collection of CDs and tapes. The home invasion would be unremarkable if it hadn’t been recounted at the start of one of the pivotal records in underground rap, Cannibal Ox’s 2001 opus The Cold Vein. The rapping prodigy turned out to be Ox’s Vordul Mega. The older friend, who Vordul encouraged to rap, would kick around the fringes of the scenes in New York and D.C. for years after the fact. It wasn’t until 2012 that billy woods, armed with decades of trial-and-error and with many lifetimes’ worth of baggage, re-emerged with an album, History Will Absolve Me, that indicated he was finally, fully formed.

Since History, woods has dropped three distinct, excellent solo albums—two of which were produced by Blockhead who, years earlier, was as responsible for Def Jux’s sound as any producer not named El-P. But the work woods has done with the rapper and producer Elucid as Armand Hammer is even more daring. They’ve made four releases together, including last fall’s ROME, which dealt with the nature of power and the way digital and corporeal life pick at and morph one another. Their latest, Paraffin, is their most kinetic effort, the one that feels the most like it’s made of sinew and instinct.

Armand Hammer records are not unlike The Cold Vein: the writing is jam-packed with naturalist detail and esoteric asides, so dense that you can at times get lost in it, fully immersed, or let it wash over you and begin to miss things. But like Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, woods and Elucid are musically gifted enough to enmesh their vocals with the beats in a way that invites close attention but allows breathing room for those ebbs and flows of focus. They construct songs the way a good film editor will direct viewers’ eyes back and forth across the screen. Paraffin is extremely well-paced, on both micro and macro levels—see the way “ECOMOG” rises and falls, or the way the tension in the first three songs is paid off by the chanted release of “No Days Off.”

The verses return, time and time again, to the dark comedy of Western capitalism (“You don’t work, you don’t eat”), to the particulars of American racism (“I elect ‘Nature of the Threat’ as the new black national anthem”), to cutting words from relatives at tense wakes (“Still remember something foul my uncle said/Yeah, I’ma carry that to the end”). The production, from Willie Green, Kenny Segal, August Fanon, Messiah Musik, Ohbliv, and Elucid himself, skews distorted and dissonant, toward the black-and-white of the album cover.

Elucid, who in the past several years has issued his major, confrontational work in 2016’s Save Yourself, along with a series of shorter dispatches from Cape Town and East New York, opens the album alone. At first, his verse works on a mostly percussive level but ends with a missive for “the mamas locked behind the prison.” Few rappers working today are better at wringing substance from style; Elucid is comfortable sinking into the ether and rattling off a list of disconnected images, then synthesizing them into something thoughtful in the matter of a couple bars. His style is less outwardly conventional than woods’, but the two take turns tethering the other one back to the here and now. What makes their working relationship fascinating is that on a given song, their verses will have deep thematic connections, but little direct interplay, as if they exist on parallel planes. On “Hunter,” for instance, Elucid raps about bodies as moving targets in American killing fields, while woods writes about the way heroin dealers crane their necks to catch the ambient light.

Given the weight of some topics, it helps that both rappers are genuinely funny and brimming with personality. On “Black Garlic,” for instance, Elucid calls YouTube provocateur DJ Vlad the “big boss at the end of the internet”; on “VX,” woods raps, “The money imaginary—I’ll send it to your phone” then mocks the collections agent who’s badgering him: “wiping cappuccino foam out the beard like, ‘How do you reckon?’” And a thread that runs through not only Paraffin, but the rest of the Armand Hammer catalog, is the foolishness of anyone to cast himself as a wise old sage.

Paraffin will not bring about a sea change in rap the way The Cold Vein did; it is, by sensibility and by economic reality, something that needs to exist on the fringes. Regardless, both woods and Elucid find themselves with few peers in rap today, each in the midst of a five-plus year hot streak that shows no signs of cooling down. This is a record that’s uniquely attuned to the political, physical, and ethical realities of 2018 without being weighed down by its pop culture arcana or its attendant industry concerns.

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