By Charlie Wilbraham, Second Year Politics & International Relations
Heavyweights of the US underground rap scene at the peak of their powers combine to create a dramatic saga of an album. Mesmerising loops from the Alchemist provide the perfect setting for the duo of billy woods and Elucid to deliver their unique brand of dark and cutting lyricism.
To glance over the Alchemist’s recent run of projects is to witness one of the strongest runs in hip hop history. The now 43-year-old producer otherwise known as Daniel Maman, who rose to prominence in the late nineties as a Mobb Deep and Cypress Hill associate, has accumulated a discography so consistently impressive that it’s not rare to hear him mentioned in the same breath as hallowed greats of the genre, J Dilla and Madlib.
Such comparisons are richly deserved, and in the last decade Alchemist has cemented his place amongst these icons by deftly navigating the underground scene to champion a vast number of emcees of wildly varying styles, including Westside Gunn, MF DOOM, Evidence, Earl Sweatshirt, and Freddie Gibbs – with whom he earned a Grammy nod for their delectable 2020 project Alfredo.
It is perhaps long overdue, therefore, that this giant of the genre should lend his services to one of the most relentlessly innovative acts in music: Armand Hammer, made up of the peerless duo billy woods and Elucid. The Alchemist was made aware of the pair by frequent collaborator Earl (they have a joint project rumoured to drop in the near future); with a recent Washington Post interview referring to their body of work as the ‘purest expression of art.’
Elucid and woods are not newcomers, but it is in combining that they have elevated themselves to deserved recognition as the vital and pioneering artists they are. In particular, woods has made a seismic impact on hip hop, with his recent yet seminal works Terror Management and Hiding Places (with Kenny Segal) garnering huge acclaim for their boundary-pushing production and incomparably dexterous and vivid lyricism.
It is hard to overstate how highly anticipated this project was by hip hop heads when the album announcement (along with its grotesquely prodigious artwork) was posted online. Rarely does a project stand up to the test of such expectations, however, the aforementioned artists are not ones to let such pressure affect their art. What has resulted from their collaboration is nothing short of a triumph.
The Alchemist rises to meet two rappers at the pinnacle of their craft by trading the more blissfully carefree loops of his most recent projects for a sound that matches the biting lyricism of his comrades, yet still retaining the signature spellbinding sample chops and chord changes that have carried him to the top.
You can sense the voracity with which the two rappers take up Alc’s sonic offerings, both rappers employing their similarly gravelled yet uniquely delivered and toned rhymes to weave evocative tales and observations of the darkly exploitative society they are both products of. With his father active in the liberation movement in Zimbabwe, and having lived as a political refugee in New York, woods calls on his anti-authoritarian upbringing through his searing critiques of the capitalist structures he has witnessed destroy countless communities.
Ripping away the plasters which reveal the scars of colonialism, woods attacks the postcolonial veil of ignorance that is endemic of the West’s attitudes towards its past, and present imperialism. ‘I put a neat hole in Indiana Jones’ fedora / For that Somali tora we lit up the night like Sodom and Gomorrah’ - just one example of woods’ astounding wordplay, made all the more impactful by his authoritative and gritty voice as he dances atop the Alchemist’s shadowy loops.
In keeping with the album’s theme of taboo, especially religious vices (the vinyl packaging is covered in images of such things), Elucid raps with the spirit of revolt, challenging those who commodify the lives of the poor with the memorable ‘My new name colonizers can't pronounce / Bounce per ounce, more, what counts / Kill your landlord, no doubt.’
His rasping tones star in the hook for euphoric album closer – ‘Stonefruit’ – a fittingly dramatic end to an otherworldly experience. The pair use their lyricism to criticise those who manipulate and abuse, and yet, this is not a brash or unwelcome listening experience.
Both rappers ride the cinematic production to offer these grim observations, however, they come alongside messages of hope, community, and solidarity that culminate in some truly soaring moments, particularly on ‘Falling out the Sky’ featuring Earl. To listen to this album for the first time is to experience a mercurial and lucid painting, the work of three brushes that have become reverently worshipped by those they have touched.
Featured Image: Alexander Richter
Have you listened to Haram yet?