Armand Hammer

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Billy Woods: Camouflage (2003), 6/10
Billy Woods: The Chalice (2004), 5/10
Billy Woods: History Will Absolve Me (2012), 7.5/10
Race Music (2013), 6.5/10
Billy Woods: Dour Candy (2013), 5/10
Billy Woods: Today I Wrote Nothing (2015), 5/10
Elucid: Save Yourself (2016), 6.5/10
Billy Woods: Known Unknowns (2017), 6.5/10
Rome (2017), 6.5/10
Elucid: Nostrum Grocers (2018), 5/10
Paraffin (2018), 6/10
Billy Woods: Hiding Places (2019), 6/10
Billy Woods: Terror Management (2019), 5/10
Shrines (2020), 5/10
Haram (2021), 6.5/10
Billy Woods: Aethiopes (2022), 7/10
Billy Woods: Church (2022), 5/10
Billy Woods: Maps (2023), 5/10

New York's rapper Billy Woods, who grew up in Africa and the Caribbeans, the son of a Zimbabwean Marxist writer father and a Jamaican professor of English literature, debuted with Camouflage (2003), produced mostly by a young producer known as 007 or Bond (check out Wonderful World and Dirge) and then proved his talent in raps such as Gourmet on the sprawling The Chalice (2004). He even rapped in Maryland on a sample of Velvet Underground's Heroin.

After an eight-year hiatus, Woods re-launched his career with the 21-song History Will Absolve Me (2012), which borrows the title from a famous four-hour speech made by Fidel Castro in 1953. This time he rapped on a Led Zeppelin sample (and much more) in the tormented Headband and on a Miles Davis sample in Sour Grapes. Woods' lyricism and flow shine in the historical "je accuse" of The Man Who Would Be King (against the European slave trade) and in the African-tinged Nigerian Email. Virtually each song is a different beast in a different style. Marmaduke produces the bleak and manically convoluted High Tide and crafts the muffled industrial-tribal beat of Ca$h for Gold. The Foreigner (produced by Marris "A.M. Breakups" Mielnick) borrows from horror film soundtracks (the synth motif), jazz and psychedelia. If the magniloquent zenith of the production is the terrifying Pompeii (produced by Willie Green), the melodic peak comes in the pulsing Blue Dream (produced by Man Mantis) with the catchy refrain sung by a female singer. To top everything else, Crocodile Tears (produced by Willie Green) is the hip-hop equivalent of hard rock, with the synth, instead of the guitar, unleashing the distorted riffs.

His erudite lyrics didn't flow as well on Dour Candy (2013), produced by Tony "Blockhead" Simon, who seemed to have reserved his best beats for Jawhar "Illogic" Glass's Capture the Sun (2013).

Meanwhile, producer Chaz "Elucid" Hall was putting out mixtapes such as Smash & Grab (2007), Police & Thieves (2008) and The Sub Bass Diet (2009).

Woods and Elucid formed Armand Hammer (pronounced "arm and hammer") that debuted with Race Music (2013), followed by the nine-song EP Furtive Movements (2014). Their music relied on the combination of Woods' rock-inspired instrumentals and Elucid's dark, industrial productions, as well as from contributions from a cast of young creative producers. The intricate and dramatic Black Ark (produced by Jeff Markey) is the appetizer for complex concepts like New Museum (produced by Marmaduke with oneiric keyboards and a recurring sample of the Cults' choral singalong Go Outside) and the elegant and jazzy Cloisters (produced by Messiah Musik). The music is often harder than the lyrics would demand: No Roses (produced by Willie Green) is frenzied and with a gospel choir, Hand Over Fist (produced by Paul "Uncommon Nasa" Loverro) is heavy, abrasive and suspenseful, and Sunnis Blues (produced by Marris "A.M. Breakups" Mielnick) exudes the feeling of a voodoo ceremony in the jungle.

Billy Woods returned to the erudite and angry lyricism of History Will Absolve Me with the 24-song Today I Wrote Nothing (2015), but actually only 53 minute long, but most of these brief pieces (produced by a large cast of collaborators) feel underdeveloped.

Known Unknowns (2017), mostly produced by Blockhead, contains some of Woods' best lyrical material, like Wonderful and Robespierre. Aesop Rock produces the sardonic Bush League with guitar twang, chicken synth and funk fanfare, and Blockhead's palette is more varied and colorful than ever: the nocturnal and jazzy Nomento, the catchy and relaxed Police Came To My Show, the exotic and jazzy Unstuck, the folkish and martial Keloid.

Elucid released his solo album Save Yourself (2016), with some of his most sinister and eccentric productions (Lest They Forget, Cold Again, Jealous God, especially Bleachwater), and a vast range of moods, from the hard-hitting Blame the Devil to the funereal If you Say So via the angelic female singing in the martial NY Blanks, which sometimes border on being mini-radio plays (Wake Up Dead Man), besides mixtapes such as Valley of Grace (2017) Shit Don't Rhyme No More (2018) and Every Egg I Cracked Today Was Double Yolked (2019), and launched a collaboration with Rory "Milo" Ferreira, Nostrum Grocers (2018).

Armand Hammer (that was now a duo of rappers, with Elucid elevated to the same lyrical status as Woods) released the apocalyptic concept Rome (2017), with the hard-hitting Pakistani Brain and Stole (produced by Messiah Musik) and a parade of creative productions: the tinkling funk-soul of Dead Money (produced by Messiah Musik), the abstract soundscapes of Tread Lightly and It Was Written (produced by August Fanon), the warped psychedelic sounds of Microdose (August Fanon), the lethargic jazzy Pergamum (produced by Kenny Segal) and Barbarians, produced by Barrington "Jpegmafia" Hendricks with catatonic organ and bubbling synths.

Paraffin (2018) boasts some terrific productions by Elucid (Rehearse with Ornette, VX, and the complex, tragic Hunter) and abrasive productions by Fanon (No Days Off) and Messiah Musik (Vindaloo). On the sophisticated side, Messiah Musik produces Sudden Death.

Woods released Hiding Places (2019), a collaboration with producer Kenny Segal, who adds lethargic psychedelic flavors to the raps (Spongebob and Red Dust the highlights), but is burdened by too much filler, and Terror Management (2019), a collection of shorter songs that, like Today I Wrote Nothing, often feel like unfinished ideas (Gas Leak could have been a great one).

Armand Hammer returned with Shrines (2020), a much more relaxed album compared with the previous two, with simplistic productions despite the cast of producers: August Fanon (Pommel Horse), Earl Sweatshirt (Bitter Casava), Nicholas Craven (King Tubby), Messiah Musik (War Stories), etc. The highlights are Kenny Segal's lugubrious Dead Cars and Andrew Broder's dilated, stoned soundscapes for Frida and Slewfoot. But overall it sounds like Woods and Elucid have become lazy and stereotyped.

Haram (Saddle Creek, 2021), a collaboration with producer Alchemist is notable for the intricate beats concocted by the latter, notably in Scaffolds and Falling out the Sky (not to dismiss Billy Woods' lyrics, which remains among the most literate in the genre). The eerie Angelo Badalamenti-esque (and lyrically harrowing) God's Feet and the jazzy Peppertree show the range of ambition.

Jean "DJ Preservation" Daval was the brain behind the instrumental backbone of Billy Woods' Aethiopes (2022). The producer's dystopian and enigmatic sound design (incorporating blues, reggae, gamelan and African folk) did more than simply match the surrealism of Woods' lyrics: it shaped their very meanings. The result is chilling and cerebral hip-hop enveloped in a dark atmosphere with psychedelic overtones. Woods contributes abstract lyrics that border on real poetry (not narrative, sermon or self-promotion). The dislocated jazz core of Asylum, the suspenseful crescendo of noise in Christine, the distorted and blended gamelan of Wharves and the metallic horror noisescape of Sauvage are something that Autechre could do. The slow martial pseudo-reggae Versailles, the tense Heavy Water and the pow-wow war dance NYNEX (with lyrics like "It's autonomous computers sendin' shooters back in time at the behest of defunct message boards / Translucent man-of-war, the tentacles caress my paramour") are Woods' most dramatic moments. The duo comes up with a wild variety of schemes: the rap in the second half of Haarlem glides over street drums and manically atonal piano strumming, a flute melody and snippets of mournful chanting hover over the requiem-like Remorseless, and the beat-less heavy declamation of No Hard Feelings swims through a dense background of hornpipes and flutes.

A few months later, Billy Woods' introverted side took over on the melancholic and intimate Church (Backwoodz Studioz, 2022), entirely produced by his long-time collaborator Messiah Musik. Quantity and quality rarely go together: no surprise that this new album contains mostly half-baked songs. Messiah Musik's beats are generally simple and minimal. Woods' delivery is rarely engaging. Cossack Wedding and Magdalene are virtually the only songs in which the two minds create something interesting.

Woods' second collaboration with Segal, Maps (2023), is a mellow and lazy effort. It still relies on Segal's creative production and Woods' vivid imagery, but too many songs sound the same monotonous whining. Segal shows his skills in the jazzy tracks Facetime and Blue Smoke, and in the hypnotic glitchy beat of Soundcheck, and Woods excels in Soft Landing. Year Zero suffers from a lengthy Danny Brown feature.

(Copyright © 2020 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )