ALBUM REVIEW: Armand Hammer/The Alchemist, Haram
In Arabic, the term “haram” refers to something that is “forbidden”, or otherwise not in a state of purity. Before prayer, those dedicated to the religion must completely dispel everything in their life that leaves them in an impure state. That is to say, no cigarettes, alcohol, sex, masturbation, and ESPECIALLY NO EATING PIGS. With an album cover like Haram’s, which can be described as “two bloody pig heads”, it is clear before listening that we are in for something that looks into all that is impure and sub-level. Haram is a meeting of the minds, three in particular: hip-hop duo Armand Hammer (consisting of Billy Woods and ELUCID) and veteran producer The Alchemist. It just makes perfect sense for the grimiest beat maker in all of hip-hop to team up with such an off-kilter group, it is an unholy matrimony of sounds that yields some of the best hip-hop I’ve heard in 2021 so far.
The track “Indian Summer” is such a perfect example of what skilled storytellers and a great scorer can do in order to really dig into the dirt of our world. Alc’s beat sounds like Hellish bugles and mafioso flutes combining to allow Billy Woods to talk about how he “swore vengeance in the 7th grade, not against one man, the whole human race”. From there he delves into what I assume is drug dealing as he says, “the intoxication of counting cash in secret”. Then whatever scam he is pulling is revealed as he’s fired from his job or arrested there. He doesn’t go into much more detail about it, Woods loves to dip into his evil past and then move on, it’s so unsettling. The rhymes from both Woods and ELUCID on this track are so tightly woven, quickly moving from dead explorers to dog walking with the flip of a phrase.
As on 2020’s immaculately produced Alfredo, The Alchemist is back with the most dreadful possible beats he can work up. “Wishing Bad” sounds like something off of a clipping. album, simple but stabbing. Even “Black Sunlight” which has more lively drums and some soul samples, has this underlying burnt quality to it that feels unable to be cleaned. Armand Hammer is just so unconcerned with making anything sweet either, “Black bastards, n*gro humor, laugh in the casket, yellow teeth, incisors flashin’/Some nights the sun shines you just gotta catch it”, mostly every line on this project is close cut with ugly truths displayed for everyone to see. Taking some cues from Earl Sweatshirt or maybe the other way around, “Falling out the Sky” really does seem like a perfect match. Both Armand Hammer and Earl have this off-beat style with bong-ripped flows that make certain lines hit so much harder. Over some old school, dark dub reggae, we hear Earl utter such lines as “my father's body swollen behind my eyes” and “spliff burning like crude oil”. This is the sound of men who’ve been through a lot of pain and trauma in their lives still finding a way to get on the mic, smoking weed to “feel like I wasn’t surrounded by the past”, as Woods raps on the second verse.
What I will say about this album is it’s nothing truly new for either Armand Hammer or Alchemist, it’s just the sound combined that produces some magic. They come in with short bursts of avant-rap, then peel out like a drive-by. Tracks like “Peppertree”, “Squeegee” and especially “God’s Feet” just don’t really work for me, they are just too brief and uninteresting. “Peppertree” sees the guys really locking into a singing style that feels a little too half-baked for me to care about at all. After the excellent “Aubergine” and “Scaffolds”, this album really takes off, or goes into a downward spiral depending on how you look at it. The cover is of decapitated pigs ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The organic conga drums on this song provide a nice, simple and kind of creepy backing for Armand Hammer, the album honestly gets more on beat and locked in with this track. After two more excellent tracks in “Falling out the Sky” and “Wishing Bad”, we get the best track, which is “Chicharonnes” (Editor's Note: I think "Indian Summer" is the best track now.)
The beat for this song is so hypnotic, it feels like a dream sequence from the IT movies, twinkling and deadly all at once. Woods has a pretty syrupy but still loud and pointed flow on this one, rapping about...getting rid of cops. Quelle Chris is the best feature and honestly has the most topical verse on here. He goes from “offing pigs” to pig roasting, cutting the snout despite the mouth, Animal Farm, and then even gets into BDSM with the line (“hogtied, put the apple in the mouth”). He’s just having a pig feast on this feature, it truly feels like someone at the label sent him the cover and just said “be as disrespectful as you possibly can”, and did just that. I also like how “Squeegee” almost shows a progression of a man trying to get pure in this landscape that Alc has laid out, his life goes from “Fresh groceries, no more eatin’ meat” to “He can hear ‘em carryin’ on the floor/They gettin’ wet in the hall, smell like the morgue/The taste in his mouth just like before”, showing us that no matter how hard this person tries, they will always be stuck in this unsettling cold life that smells like expired meat.
“Robert Moses” is a little too short but also has some really crucial lines, like on the intro when the man asks “Can God forgive us? For what we’ve, uh -- done to this world?”, immediately following this are lots of references to historically horrific acts mixed with modern day death. “Fitted the Bentley with the car bomb, bend the knee/Rep the team, Iwo Jima, Christ the redeemer, more life” and more references to coldness in “Frozen and freezin’, project shadows deepen”. “Stonefruit” feels kind of like an extended epilogue, Woods and ELUCID are rapping their asses off as if they know the end is nigh, just getting in as many impurities in there as they can before the brutal show ends and the curtains close. This is a powerful hip-hop album that you don’t want to miss.