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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

REVIEW: Armand Hammer- "Race Music"


 Armand Hammer– Race Music
Record Label – Backwoodz Studioz
Release Date – October 22, 2013

Instead of opting for traditional liner notes or lyrics in the CD booklet for their new juggernaut of an album Race Music, MC’s billy woods and Elucid (working under the group name Armand Hammer) chose to use a passage from an essay written by American literary great James Baldwin entitled Down at the Cross.  The passage contains Baldwin’s account of a conversation with a young member of the Nation of Islam during the 1960’s.  The exchange turns into a rumination on the past, present, and future of an African American populous that was determined to succeed but faced obstacles beyond their control that made success on a larger scale near impossible.  The decision to use the Baldwin passage helps to set the mood for the album, but also sets the bar for the level of thought and skill that Elucid and woods intended to bring to the project.  Rappers rarely seem to get the proper amount of credit for their writing skills and woods and Elucid seem determined to prove that their music holds substantially more weight than it’s given credit for and should be viewed through the appropriate lens.    

The one-two punch of “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Renaissance Garments” found right past Race Music’s midpoint might not seem like a purposeful sequence at first, but when the songs are examined through the context of the Baldwin passage and the underlying racial identity themes found throughout the album, they emerge as the album’s emotional core.  “Where the Wild Things are” opens with Elucid vividly describing his relationship with violence as youth, from childhood fistfights to a gradual realization of the all-too-real gun violence that left his and so many other neighborhoods in terror.  Woods’ verse has not only become my favorite on the album, it’s one of the best verses about growing up in America’s violence-riddled, racially segregated inner city neighborhoods as I’ve ever heard-  “Dumb out, stupid nice / Waiting For Superman, classroom fulla kryptonite / Juvenile Hell, The Trife Life / Ossie Davis been dead, now they hand you gun and knife / said Do The Thing Right, banana in the tailpipe / eyes squeezed tight squeezing off on a-alikes with the Armalite / born yesterday but hey, they was up all night / looking for n***** only found they selves / pulling on triggers / spot Enemy outside his home, let fly like Predator drone / hell to pay, like predatory loan / Rule Of the Bone did the Regents off the dome / studied the streets, prepaid the phone, hand a lil’ n**** the heat / you don’t really want to know how it go, like ground beef / a mother’s grief, overdubbed on top some hot beats / shots cheap, foot chase in Rock Creek / I’m wired, can’t sleep behind a fade someone caught last week / King of the Wild Things, made it home for supper / You should see the other kid, he’s a dead motherfucker”.

The harsh realities brought to light on “Where the Wild Things are” are contrasted perfectly with the somewhat nostalgic look back at their own adolescent desire for fashionable gear on “Renaissance Garments”.  I say ‘somewhat’ nostalgic because as Elucid reminds us on his verse, the perceived need for these status symbols is often closely tied to the violence described on “Where the Wild Things are”.  “Renaissance Garments” was produced by underground super producers Blue Sky Black Death who also provided the spooky beat for “Nosferatu”, a clever song about real world vampires who lurk on the outskirts of society.  Woods' verse seems to be from the perspective of a pimp and Elucid's from that of a cult leader, but the vampire metaphor and personal touches allow the song to work on multiple levels.  Both MC’s rarely offer the same perspective on a single song and it often seems as if one writes a verse that inspires the other to take the song in a completely different direction.  This can make the album difficult to follow at first, but ultimately gives Race Music an unparalleled level of depth when compared to other contemporary hip hop LPs.  

“Willie Bosket” is another standout song that is closely tied to Race Music’s underlying themes.  Elucid’s verse about an “underprivileged, over-medicated” youth who’s been done wrong since day one is a chilling account of how a broken family and flawed school system can lead a person who only wants to “make my family proud” into mental illness and disrepair.  Woods’ verse takes the listener through the day in the life of a crack/PCP addict.  The level of detail and emotion in both verses really allows the despair of the song to come through and it works perfectly over an energetic trap style beat from Marmaduke that stands out on an album filled with great beats.  Marmaduke has been making beats for billy woods for several years and has always been a versatile, talented producer, but his work here is truly special.  He contributes four tracks (“Willie Bosket”, “Frog and Toad are Friends”, “New Museum”, and “White Lies”) that at any given moment could rank as my four favorite songs on the album. 

While the concepts and the angles presented on the album are abundant and even overwhelming at times, the fact both that both artists are established solo artists with extensive discographies makes it easier for them to still maintain individual narratives and aesthetics throughout such a collaborative project.  Some songs like “Hatchet Job”, “Shark Fin Soup”, and “No Roses” feel a bit like billy woods songs featuring Elucid because of their similarity to some of the relationship/drug dealer story lines found on his album Dour Candy while others (“Black Ark”, “Sunni’s Blues”, and “Kanun”) feel like Elucid songs featuring woods because of their mystical, esoteric production and hypnotically abstract flows that would have been a great fit on Elucid’s Cult Favorite album with A.M. Breakups.  “Duppy” might be the best example of both artists completely doing ‘their thing’ but still making it work perfectly in the context of a group song.  Woods astoundingly honest and insightful verse about the events and mood surrounding his father’s death and subsequent funeral in Africa is the type of existentially brilliant MCing that’s made him one of the most under appreciated artists in hip hop for over 10 years now.  Elucid curves billy’s funeral/witchcraft narrative into a verse that describes the ritual lifestyle of nature worshiping cult that lives in the forest.  Elucid’s ability to pen mesmerizing verses concentrated on religion, the occult and supernatural forces was established on the Cult Favorite album and resurfaces throughout this album.

Race Music is light on guest appearances, but those that do show up really hit their marks.  Underground veteran Creature adds a show stealing verse to the Uncommon Nasa produced banger “Hand Over Fist” that works perfectly in the context of the album, closing with the lines- “Stay safe, what you invite can take ya / Where the sun stood still on the darkest corner / Numb can’t feel like a heartless mourner”.  Marmaduke loops a Cults sample to great effect on “New Museum” as Open Mike Eagle and Busdriver join Armand Hammer for a lightning round style posse cut that’s about trying to maintain as a serious artist in an era where art rap doesn’t get near the respect it deserves.  While woods and Elucid may have aspirations for the album that transcend stereotypical views of rap music, they are clearly students and fans of the art form and don’t eschew traditional styles altogether.  Their rhyme structure, wordplay, and references stand out even if the listener isn’t immediately able to flesh out the larger themes and concepts that are in play. 

The lead single “Shark Fin Soup” and “Frog and Toad are Friends” are probably the most straightforward showcases for the undeniable linguistic skill that both MC’s possess.  The latter’s no-chorus, tag team format teamed with Marmaduke’s simmering production makes it one of the album’s true high points.  An unapologetic demand for respect, “Frog and Toad are Friends” is two artists at their peak letting it all hang out.  Woods makes their intentions clear in his standout 2nd verse when he spits “this year, it’s no honorable mentions / unify the belts, end all dissension”.  His perspective makes a lot of sense if you’ve paid any attention to his and Elucid’s solo work over the last year.  Elucid released his long anticipated LP with producer A.M Breakups For Madmen Only back in March and woods dropped a one MC/producer collab of his own with Blockhead entitled Dour Candy in June.  I had the privilege of interviewing both artists about their solo albums in a track by track format for ThoughtOnTracks.com and the amount of work that each of them put into every song was astounding.  The fact that they were able to write, record, and release a monster of an album like Race Music in such a short amount of time is all the evidence I need to hand Armand Hammer the tag team title to complete the belt unification, the only question is, who’s the world champ and who gets stuck with the intercontinental belt?

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