‘It’s difficult to write about somebody who is a better writer than you,’ billy woods elucidates. Together with fellow rapper ELUCID, they make up the New York duo Armand Hammer, whose recently released album Haram dotted with lyrical references to literature, Critical Theory, shrewd social and political commentary. As a digital humanities grad student and music enthusiast, I rejoiced to see these worlds colliding in an artistic endeavor composed so aesthetically, executed with such skillful ingenuity and dense in its subject matter. But how can I write something about someone who’s a better writer than I am? Well, by not aiming to do an album review but instead trying to stitch together what makes this album important to introduce to an audience beyond the (abstract) hip hop demographics: the INC reader. We can look beyond our own discourse and find similarities in the avant-garde assemblage that is Haram, where critical writing is mediated through a different format: music and lyricism.
Armand Hammer is regarded as underground, abstract, or experimental. This genre is often signified by the musical choice or abstract lyrics. In Haram’s case, however, it’s the entire aesthetic beyond the music and lyrics is abstract, the complete presentation is an experimental experience. I’d say it is submerged in an avant-garde aesthetic even. I’m not using that word lightly here. In various ways, it’s unconventional and unorthodox. Lending the term from Islamic vernacular, Haram refers to impurity, forbidden, or to those not initiated into sacred knowledge. Together with the provoking and symbolic cover of two severed pig heads, one should feel warned about the content. Not to scare of without trigger warnings, but to approach this art piece with caution as it presents radical ideas.
These radical ideas are not only found in lyrics but also in the way the immaculate producer The Alchemist sampled, created, and arranged the music. There is a keen coherence between the rappers’ lyrics, cadence, and applied delays, echoes, or stutters on the vocals by The Alchemist, his beats, the song titles, and the audio snippets from boxing matches, David Lynch, Barry White, Little Richard, 60s movies and conversations on hysteria with references to Freud’s professor and neurology pioneer Charcot scattered across this album. Collectively, this amounts to a layered narrative, consciously assembled piece by piece in order to provoke the listener with thought-provoking or radical ideas. So even before addressing the lyrics, the conformity or coherence of the experimental aesthetic that is Haram already hints at the unapologetic insights to be found in the lyrics.
You need permission to have an issue with me
I’m not privy to the stories you live inside
A home of alt history, I just bend the rhyme
No mystery, God, deepest look inside
Thick fog on the channel, rando pseudo Rambo, bad camo
Armed to a T as in tango
Letha Brainz Blo, baldhead in Kangol
(ELUCID on Sir Benni Miles)
Thought-provoking music–especially in rap, of course– is nothing new. Rap is viewed as a channel of free speech that connects listeners to social and political issues explained by the artist in poetic fashion. It also creates solidarity among those with similar subcultural capital, that is those in the know: music was used during times of slavery to communicate experiences beyond the understanding of the colonizers. You can look at the godfather of rap Gil-Scott Heron for a 20th-century example of this. Situated in a jazz-funk and soul, his spoken-word performances utilized social commentary, satire, and literary influence from Harlem Renaissance writers to conjure his art pieces. Songs like ‘Whitey on the Moon’, ‘Winter in America‘ or ‘The Revolution will not be Televised‘ provided insight into the zeitgeist of the 70s black American. Weaving together street poetry and songwriting in order to reflect then-contemporary conditions, Heron inspired rappers to take on a similar approach in order to encapsulate their time and space.
You can view Armand Hammer as an extension of Heron. Where class struggle in Marxist terms has always been tied to hip-hop, Armand Hammer, like Heron, expands by arguing not only against class struggle but its cultural formation as a system as well, reminiscent of Western Marxist critical theory. “It’s not [only] fuck the police, but more fuck the police state,” professor Skye argues (see video below). The cut Chicharonnes illustrates this as a verbose prose pulling in various pop-cultural and literary references to pigs. The holistic aesthetic returns as the track refers to the double killing of the pigs in the cover: the police state oppressing black Americans and the cop in your thoughts. Critical Theory around identity is present as woods questions the double consciousness of his demographic. As a form of auto-ethnography, they mention what outcomes systems of oppressions have on them. These systems of oppression take form as neoliberalism, Marxist class struggle, or police states. Humor or cynicism also plays an important role here. Kafka-esque surreal humor is surrounded by grudge which, based on the entire aesthetic of Haram, shouldn’t come as a surprise to be a theme.
Got caught with the pork
But you gotta kill the cop in your thoughts
Still sayin’ “Pause”
Negroes say they hate the cops
But the minute somethin’ off, they wanna use force
I just work here, I’m not the boss (I’m not the boss)
I never bought in, so when it go left, it’s no loss (No loss)
When they look back in history, make sure I’m absolved (Make sure)
Don’t try to rewrite the past, it’s oral history where I’m involved
(billy woods on Chicharonnes)
The scholarly inclination mainly comes from billy woods, whose father was a Zimbabwean Marxist politician, while his mother was an English literary scholar. woods’ entire discography confesses his interest in creative and critical writing (which I’ll leave up to you to discover). Flowery verses are filled with figurative phrases you’ll comprehend only after a few listens. I get the same from reading theory. Try to read a thousand plateaus just once and tell me what it’s about. You can’t (partly because of French theorists are masters in masking the intention of their work behind layers of complex sentences–which get lost in translation even further. Speaking of which…
A thousand plateaus, a constellation of prisons
An ocean of archipelagos, an algorithm
Apply pressure to achieve desired results
Voices in the ventilation float different
Foucault call collect, sound like long distance
(billy woods on Wishing Bad)
Here, the system of oppression is the ubiquity of platform capitalism, which applies pressure to achieve desired results, whether that be motivated by capital or by increasing control through surveillance. Black boxed algorithms of platforms create an economy in which users perform immaterial labor through digital practices. woods juxtaposes arguably juxtaposes this with life in the gulag, as he uses the word archipelago to pull in a reference to The Gulag Archipelago by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Foucault can’t be omitted when we talk about systems of discipline and control. woods jumps from the Deleuze and Guattari reference to a parallel he sees in the Foucauldian panopticon (the constellation of prisons) before modernizing the idea that algorithms not only isolate but create self-government in subjects or users of digital platforms. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, it’s difficult to write about somebody who is a better writer than I am. So surely this small deconstruction is probably just half of it, but just well illustrates the density of Haram. (If somebody wants to help me out decipher the last line, that’d be great.)
This subject matter and craft go far beyond the status quo within hip-hop discourse. It can be read and deconstructed as a literary essay. The radical ideas that make it avant-garde are presented in an equally avant-garde manner and thus require a certain literary proficiency. This is exactly what makes the abstract vision of Armand Hammer underground. While the collaboration with the critically acclaimed Alchemist– who dives into the most experimental bag he’s ever touched on this album–does well for Armand Hammer’s reach beyond the underbelly, the rappers’ philosophy just does not stroke with ‘what’s hot’. What’s hot sells, not only numbers but ideology as well. I don’t think Billboard is all that relevant anymore but for the sake of this argument, have a look at the charts: flaunting consumerist and capitalist desire, self-medication through drug use, and the contemporary discourse on love and sex (the latter two also underscore the former two). In order words, popular rap is neoliberal ideology remediated through music, whereas Haram remediates critical thought as a literary narrative through music. This is not my inner old-head speaking, but rather looking at rap as an art form 😅.
One could spend the length of a thesis on a lyrical analysis of billy woods’ art. But using music as a medium, Armand Hammer not only makes political thought on a scholarly level more accessible, it is also presented through the aesthetic lens. The almost redundant aphorism by McLuhan still rings true here: the medium is the message, as it’s far more equipped to deliver the actual message and make an impact than scholarly articles could.
In addition, Armand Hammer goes beyond Hip-hop’s characteristic trait of social commentary. Where Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly (TBAP)–in my humble opinion the best album of this century– did have a broad cultural impact through its timely release during civil unrest and its widespread success, Armand Hammer is a little less digestible by means of its density. You could see TPAB as an investigative research journalist while Haram (and essentially all Armand Hammer’s albums) mirror a Critical Theory essay on a similar topic. It’s less focused on timely relevance and more on proposing radical thought through free-flowing association.
Similar to Gil-Scott Heron’s encapsulation of the 70s zeitgeist, Armand Hammer captures the black experience in contemporary neoliberalism. While auto-ethnography presents off-kilter anecdotes or haunting punchlines– starting your album with ‘Dreams are dangerous’ is a certain example. There is no call for reform. However, billy and ELUCID aim to disclose what they discover through their oblique experiences with contemporary society. The critical artform reads like a literary prose, which– in my opinion– is an example of why we can and maybe even need to look beyond our isolated field to situate and trace theory in the wild itself.