Wednesday, September 12, 2018

album review: 'paraffin' by armand hammer

I'll admit to being surprised that we got a new Armand Hammer record in 2018. Not to imply the duo of billy woods and Elucid haven't been consistently churning out thorny, complicated projects throughout the 2010s, but 2017 was a busy year for billy woods both with a solo release and Armand Hammer's Rome, which I covered late in the year with Beezy430 over at Dead End Hip Hop. And while I definitely hold that Rome is not for everyone - the hooks are sparse, the rhymes are tangled, the conspiratorial vibe can make delving into the themes a tough sell - I still hold it's a great record.

But Paraffin looked to be a different animal. Where Rome was fragmented and apocalyptic, Paraffin looked to be digging deeper into weirder territory, exhuming the bones picked clean from the remnants of a society burned before, not so much a sequel but a deeper dive into similar ideas. So yeah, after relistening to Rome and reminding myself why it's a fantastic hip-hop record, I geared up for Paraffin - so what did we dig up this time?

So like any record affiliated with billy woods, talking about Paraffin feels tricky. Just as fragmented as Rome, but where that record had the underlying sense of cynical panic to drive urgency and a lyrical arc that helped provide a foundation for the tangled wordplay, Paraffin feels more deliberately paced, a little more colourful in its melodic samples, a little less abrasive and bleak... and in an odd way, while there's a part of me that knows this is more accessible, I'm actually a bit cooler on this than I expected. Not saying it's bad by any stretch of the mind - on the contrary, I totally get why Paraffin is getting buckets of critical acclaim - but where Rome's thorny writing demanded the listener engage for their own sake, Paraffin is more content for those to peruse and get lost on their own time, more a textural experience than a visceral one.

Of course, some of this inevitably comes with criticisms I've had with Armand Hammer for some time now, so let's get those out of the way quickly. Yes, it gets distracting that Elucid and billy woods have similar vocal tones and styles, and there's a part of me that wishes they played up the interplay and chemistry a bit more - hell, it'd be an easy way to play up the paranoia and disorientation that often reads as subtext, although a fair bit less so this time around. And like with Rome, the lack of more defined hooks can make engaging with individual cuts on the album a little trying - although with a less gripping but more inviting album experience you'd think they'd try to bring in a few more hooks to compliment the enhanced melodic focus. I will say that there's a surprise sample that shows up on the final cut that I'm a little stunned Armand Hammer managed to snag, and while I won't spoil who it's from, I will say that it complements Armand Hammer's still gritty and textured tones remarkably well. 

Now granted, when I say an Armand Hammer record is more 'inviting' it needs to be placed in perspective, because even for those familiar with this brand of grimy, underground hip-hop Paraffin can be a tough sell from a production standpoint alone. The basslines are murky and curdles and only occasionally roil into a groove, while the samples of electric guitars, horns, and hints of synth and strings seem constantly on the cusp of being warped, stretched, or chopped apart in a beat switch, taking even stable melodies and adding uncertainty, all amidst a roiling murk of rumbling distortion and jagged texture. And at first listen it could well seem as imposing as Rome was, especially for as often as the production overlaps with the vocals or the bass blows across everything in its path, or the flutters of static and glitch disrupt the mix... but the melodies do feel more solid. The guitars behind 'Rehearse With Ornette', 'VX' and 'No Days Off', the richer horn tones on 'Dettol' and 'Alternate Side Parking', even the glittery touches and fuzzy chiptune around 'Vindaloo' and 'Bob Barker' feel a shade smoother and less immediate - hell, the most immediate moment comes with a crushing beat switch on 'If He Holla' to accent Skech185's verse, and while it's probably the most aggressive switch I've heard Armand Hammer deliver, it's also very much the exception to the rule. And overall the songs don't quite have that gritty edge of fragmented menace - the grooves are thicker and slower, and compared to the flutes on 'Hunter' and 'Sudden Death', I was left feeling Rome kept me more on the edge of my seat.

And to be fair, when you start delving into the content, that's not really at all surprising. Going back to Rome, much of the record was framed as the apocalyptic moment where society was starting to snap awake at systems being fleeced for all they were worth before they all collapsed, ending with the dazed survivors struggling through the metaphorical rubble. And while Paraffin is not framed as a sequel, it does feel informed by the arc of that album, even if it leads to less of an arc overall on this record. Elucid is more scattershot and impressionistic - honestly I do wish he was able to tie together his imagery a little more effectively - and billy woods is paranoid and bitterly cynical, but it leads to a tone where they expected to wind up survivors in the breakdown of society... and yet that system hasn't quite collapsed just yet, just entering a new phase that feels all the more oppressive and just as corruptive to those who don't see its influences.  And yet what gives Paraffin its new edge is the more human framing, the sort of self-awareness that can temper the paranoia and make the weight feel a shade more bearable, even if the sick joke of it all still hangs in the air, especially with the acknowledgement that so much of the posturing is masculine projection, thinking with his dick and ego that he reflexively has to puncture to survive. 'Rehearse With Ornette' is a great example: yes, he's acutely aware of the psychic scars on his mind has led his opinion to be marginalized despite its truth... but he's still going to call out the corporate rap industry that sells a sanitized picture. 'No Days Off' sets a great scene of intellectuals warned against entry in the face of a hungry child billy woods is babysitting - a great metaphor of how their theories can crumble in the face of humanity... but to feed that child you still need to face the nightmare of late stage capitalism and lose your days off. 

And in the face of those entrenched systems, Armand Hammer get why people stop trying and knuckle under, sometimes even winning as a result on 'Vindaloo', and they can't help but respect the hustle - just because they're choosing to live as much as they can outside toxic systems doesn't mean they can't give props when black people succeed despite them, and they're aware on songs like 'Alternate Side Parking' that the lives they chose could have them wiped out all the faster even if mistakes aren't made. Hell, some of the flickers of opulence that appeal to their more base side call to mind fragments of Shabazz Palaces, especially with the reference to ineffable and inexplicable systems - I might disagree with how billy woods might characterize financial systems but I certainly get his point in questioning the societal construct that they are. And there's real power in the question that if they broke away while at the bottom who would notice or care, or the draining feeling of rebellion that feels futile - especially when there are those co-opt the language but not the execution - and the open question of the hill on which you want to die. It makes sense why the record ends in exhaustion - fight in the system in which there is a slim chance of victory, one likely that'll come at the cost of your heart and mind, or lose by not playing and wind up all the more ostracized, even by those oppressed you'd call allies while your low-key oppressors try to call you brother to convince themselves they aren't oppressors. 

And the more I think about it, the more the reason I'm drawn to Rome more than Paraffin becomes sharply defined - because despite its fragmented panic in the face of collapsing systems, they are collapsing and something might be found or rebuilt from the rubble - there's a thrill as an outcast in surviving Ragnarok. Paraffin is more honest, more realistic, and while Rome was just as aware of the human consequences in both stories, Paraffin forces the narrators to take them into account, and it's no surprise that while Rome's cover art is a impressionistic city on fire, Paraffin's is a photograph of a black woman with child, for whom if systems fail could have the most to lose. In other words, it's hard for me not to feel like despite Rome having a stronger base appeal, Paraffin is probably the better record - more mature, more realistic, more nuanced, and simultaneously more accessible. And thus in acknowledgement of that, I'm giving it a light 8/10, absolutely a recommendation, and the sort of challenging hip-hop that is definitely not for everyone, but might be a good step if you're curious about this sound. Hell, get more on board to subvert or break the system and things might wind up better after all.

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