Armand Hammer, the abstract rap duo of billy woods and ELUCID, have long been heralded as titans of underground hip-hop.
Their steadily consistent output over the past decade has accrued them an ardent fanbase and recently begun to earn the pair a greater deal of mainstream attention, with both artists receiving acclaim for their respective solo outputs and features on high-profile releases from their peers.
On We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, their sixth album together under the Armand Hammer moniker, they return the favour by inviting a who’s who of guest rappers and producers to assist them on their most wide-screen and ambitious effort to date.
While woods has spent his entire career cloaking his identity behind a combination of ski masks, pixelated photos and pseudonyms, he’s never been reticent to share his deeply philosophical outlook on life through his lyrics, and has certainly not been shy when it comes to the sheer quantity of releases he has put his pen name to.
The last four years have seen him release eight full-length projects, including a couple of albums made in collaboration with Kenny Segal, 2022’s broadly celebrated Aethiopes and a couple of records as one half of Armand Hammer – Shrines and Haram (w/ The Alchemist).
That isn’t to say ELUCID has been slouching in the interim; he himself can lay claim to a number of admittedly lower-profile releases in this period, including last year’s criminally underrated I Told Bessie and collaborations with Von Pea.
Both woods and ELUCID are clearly comfortable separate from one another, but combined they are more than capable of creating heady masterpieces; a trend that arguably began the moment they first united for Race Music, and has fortified itself on an album-by-album basis.
The atmospheres they create can be equally as brooding as they are brutal, but the common bond between each release is the ambitiousness with which they approach the craft of making albums that are to be listened to as such. We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is no different, and takes us on a surreal tour of their Brooklyn home, never skipping an opportunity to throw you into the chaotic world that lies on their doorstep.
The pre-release singles provided more than enough opportunity to showcase this bold pursuit, yet there are several points at which the record dives even further into the murk and mire of the city.
‘Trauma Mic’ is an abrasive cut that sees Pink Siifu produce some of the most impactful bars on the album, which is only amplified by the relentlessly aggressive production from DJ Haram that sounds less adjacent to the bass-influenced parameters she normally works within than it does the bleak industrialism of Throbbing Gristle or This Heat (who Armand Hammer are no strangers to sampling)
There is also plenty to digest on the JPEGMAFIA-produced cuts on the record such as opener ‘Landlines’, which stumbles over itself with a dizzying collage of string samples, dial tones and soulful vocal snippets in his typically offbeat style. His work on ‘Woke Up and Asked Siri How I’m Gonna Die’ delves further into abstraction as ELUCID and woods exchange bizarre non-sequiturs that contemplate their mortality; a thought that recurs throughout the album and helps paint a morbid image over the often-apocalyptic beats they work with.
The latter half of the album features some of the strongest cameos that they have procured, such as the inclusion of Moor Mother on ‘Don’t Lose Your Job’, which showcases her prowess as not just one of the most talented wordsmiths in rap, but one of the most expressive – even her breaths and pauses between lines possess the ability to say so much. There’s also features from the likes of Junglepussy and El-P to take in, both of whom flex their creative approaches to rapping and production respectively.
There’s so much to digest in their poetic imagery, whether steeped in literary references, musings on black history or allusions to the rich musical influences that have informed large amounts of their work that it would almost feel reductive to dissect every topic covered on the album in such a condensed format.
This also happens to be one of the major stumbling blocks that the album faces; sometimes crumbling underneath the weight of its own ambition that it can become difficult to digest. That being said, nothing on the album feels like it retreads any ground that others before them have done, and avoids using hackneyed metaphors and wordplay in a way that is genuinely refreshing to hear from two individuals who have spent 20+ years honing their craft. If time is only going to strengthen Armand Hammer’s inspired relationship, then there’s absolutely no reason for this purple patch to come to an end any time soon.
Photo credit: Alexander Richter