New York is stuffed with indicators promoting money in change for diabetic take a look at strips. It’s a part of a profitable, casual economic system, the place insured sufferers can legally promote the diagnostics to uninsured patrons who can’t afford retail costs. The entire thing is absurd to the rappers Billy Woods and Elucid of Armand Hammer.
“It’s not an precise enterprise,” Elucid mentioned over plates of branzino and cavatelli in Queens. “‘I obtained 5 packs of McKesson. How a lot are you able to give me for the take a look at strips?’ They begin stumbling, and I begin laughing, then I hold up the cellphone.”
The commercials, and what they sign about wealth disparity within the metropolis, grew to become the inspiration for the duo’s sixth album, “We Purchase Diabetic Check Strips,” out Friday. The LP arrives at a pivotal level for the group, which shaped in 2013. Over the previous few years, the prolific Woods has turn into one in every of rap’s hottest indie voices. His solo releases, together with final 12 months’s “Aethiopes,” recurrently seem on best-of lists and appeal to high-profile followers like Thom Yorke. Elucid, a poet, producer and M.C., has been turning out sonically difficult work that may finest be categorised as art-rap.
Collectively, they’re a formidable pair. Their music harks again to the mid-Nineteen Nineties period of New York rap, when the matters had been bleak and the beats had been sullen. Woods is an adept storyteller with deadpan comedic chops who hides his face in photographs; Elucid spits intricate rhymes, his tone sliding up and down the dimensions like a jazz instrumentalist.
The brand new album explores the challenges of residing within the gentrified borough of Brooklyn, and the way the 2 match inside it. As fathers of their 40s in a style that doesn’t have fun growing older, the music additionally wrestles with what would possibly come subsequent.
“It’s the entire concept of spending all this time strolling round, these buildings and being like, ‘Man, what if I might afford to purchase this?’” Woods mentioned. “And serious about my mother getting older like, ‘What am I going to do?’”
Although the rappers sort out life’s recent challenges of their new music, Armand Hammer has lengthy targeted on energy dynamics, beginning with “Race Music” in 2013. Curiosity within the duo ballooned round 2018 when its LP “Paraffin” acquired constructive opinions in larger shops. Three years later, they launched “Haram” — with the famous producer the Alchemist — to widespread approval for its menacing beats and complicated appraisal of all issues taboo.
Woods grew up between Zimbabwe and Hyattsville, Md., and began rapping in 1998 with the lyricist Vordul Mega. In 2002, he began his personal label, Backwoodz Studioz, which he nonetheless owns and operates. Elucid grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and moved to Deer Park, Lengthy Island, when he was 12. His mother and father had been energetic in church — his mom sang; his father performed bass — and he began rapping as a junior in highschool.
The 2 had been launched by the underground rapper Unusual Nasa in 2011, and after Elucid recorded two options for Woods’s 2012 album “Historical past Will Absolve Me,” they shaped Armand Hammer out of mutual admiration for one another’s potential. Each are likely to rap in regards to the issues they’ve seen: Woods from a perspective that references landmarks and cultural icons; Elucid extra abstractly, taking private reminiscences into consideration.
The group’s ascendance can’t be pinned to at least one breakthrough; it’s the kind of word-of-mouth come-up paying homage to pre-internet days. “In the event you keep constant and keep true to your imaginative and prescient over time, individuals are going to catch it,” mentioned the producer and engineer Willie Inexperienced, who continuously collaborates with Armand Hammer. “And after so many information that we’ve performed, each time it’s one thing new. It’s trustworthy and true and no matter they’re feeling within the second. There’s a phenomenal honesty to that.”
Every thing Armand Hammer produces is rigorously calibrated to ship a message, right down to its title. It isn’t a nod to the oil and whisky tycoon. “I needed two issues that work collectively to do issues neither can do alone,” Woods defined in a textual content message. “I needed one thing that might be layered in its that means/interpretations. Wrote it like a reputation trigger that appeared fascinating. Please word that the actor Armie Hammer was not well-known but and I had by no means heard of him or his great-uncle.”
You want persistence when talking with Woods and Elucid. Very similar to their music, which will be considerably indecipherable at occasions, their solutions are usually free-form, their ideas free and open-ended. Reflections about their musical focus will be interrupted by a ladybug on the sidewalk or fast asides about N.B.A. historical past. They take the same method on their albums; it’s important to lean in to catch what’s occurring.
The place earlier releases like “Rome” (2017) and “Shrines” (2020) had been regular and rhythmic, “Check Strips” is huge and experimental. With beats by Kenny Segal, Jpegmafia and El-P, amongst others, and a reside band that includes the flutist Shabaka Hutchings, the producer/keyboardist Baby Actor and the bassist Adi Meyerson, the sound is equally murky and orchestral.
Some songs, like “The Versatile Unreliability of Time and Reminiscence,” float by with no percussive anchor; others, like “Trauma Mic,” have laborious drums and pounding synths that border psych-rock. The second half of “Don’t Lose Your Job” turns into an ambient soundscape on which Elucid and the poet Moor Mom speak about dying and legacy. “Landlines,” a wafting association with ringing home telephones and echoed vocal samples, lets Elucid muse in regards to the future.
“I used to be serious about my youngsters, serious about my life, serious about my different conditions I’ve happening,” he mentioned reflectively. “What am I standing on? I’m 42 years outdated and simply serious about once I look in my youngsters’s eyes and considering what’s on the market.”
Woods and Elucid hope listeners take inspiration from “Check Strips,” very similar to they did when listening for the primary time to Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” and Ol’ Soiled Bastard’s “Return to the 36 Chambers: The Soiled Model.”
“Artwork is managed by numerous issues aside from this spirit that creates artwork,” Elucid mentioned. “ODB introduced that recklessness, that vitality and that spirit.” As they had been making the album, he added, “I really feel like that’s simply our nature at this level, attempting to the touch that spirit. I’m attempting to point out you how one can be accustomed to the unfamiliar.”
Generally that “unfamiliar” will be proper in your neighborhood, like these diabetic take a look at strip indicators. “That feeling of, ‘there’s a street behind every little thing that’s in entrance of you’ — individuals’s hidden lies and hidden networks and economies,” Woods mentioned. “Some individuals are seeing this and know precisely what it’s, proper? Everybody else’s eye glazes over it. The signal is only a thriller you don’t actually find out about. As a result of it’s not about you.”