New York's rapper Billy Woods, who grew up in Africa and the Caribbeans,
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.
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.
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,
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
with the hard-hitting Pakistani Brain and Stole (produced by Messiah Musik) and a parade of
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
(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.
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,
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),
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.