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Armand Hammer - Shrines Music Album Reviews

The fourth album from the NY duo composed of Elucid and billy woods is freer, lusher, and brighter than anything they’ve done before. 

In 2003 the NYPD, acting on an anonymous tip, punched through the wall of an apartment in the Drew Hamilton Houses at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 141st Street in Harlem. Through that hole, officers saw a mattress that had been shredded the way a dog might shred a newspaper and claw marks that reached all the way up to an eight-foot ceiling. The tiger they removed, a Siberian-Bengal mix named Ming, belonged to a construction worker named Antoine Yates. Ming grew as the story spread: 350 pounds, then 425, 450, 500. Yates had acquired the tiger from an exotic animal dealer in Minnesota by falsifying papers to suggest he had land to build a zoo in Sullivan County; he had just been hospitalized after it maimed him in an attack.

The fourth song on Shrines, the new album by Armand Hammer, ends with a clip of Yates’s brother being interviewed. “My brother wanted to build a zoo,” he says, maybe a little bit drunk, talking over the music in a club. “He wanted to build a utopia. Because when he looked around him all he seen was destruction in our neighborhood.” The interviewer does not follow up on the spiritual tip. Instead he asks a practical question: How much does it cost to feed a tiger?

Shrines is the third LP that Armand Hammer, the duo composed of New Yorkers Elucid and billy woods, have released in the last two and a half years––roughly the same amount of time that Yates kept Ming in his apartment. There are times it turns grim: see, for example, Elucid’s reference to the “prayers up but quickly fallen like sweat on the brow” in the face of a paramilitary police, or the way woods flips the Nas maxim from “Life’s A Bitch” into “that buck that lost the lotto could’ve bought a fucking bottle.” But on the whole Shrines is freer, lusher, brighter than anything the pair has done before, an album that strays into “streets where Siri noted coordinates and was too scared to speak” and sees what might grow from the soil.

woods is an extraordinary writer who populates his raps with characters he dangeles like a puppeteer, and with details that unnerve––like the expendable football players who are reduced to “donated brains” that “bob gently in solution,” or the “list of ill-fated quick licks” magneted to the fridge next to permission slips from a child’s school. His aunts tap cheap watches proudly as they tout the “Swiss movement.” His middle-aged men speak to shredded-knee prospects (“You got your whole life ahead of you son… nothing to be ashamed of”) in a way that makes clear they’re really consoling themselves. And his prosecutors consider lenience before stabbing a shiv in the accused’s neck.

He’s not just smooth, he’s “graceful as third-generation bomb makers”; he cracks jokes about plagiarizing a famous commencement speech at a “cash-strapped HBCU.” When he recalls his father’s second burial, you can picture the motorcade that curves “like a snake through the streets,” and when a cocky king thinks he can wade into the masses, you see the mob with “claws reaching, eyes like sequins.” One of the most incisive passages comes on “Ramesses II,” named for the Egyptian pharaoh from the “Ozymandias” poems. Of numbing luxury, woods raps:

Waves of pleasure, thought you had the best till you taste better
Taste butter
The tailors’ tape measure touch like a lover
Doormens’ faces blend into one another
Glass panels in the sky, with the sound off
Even when you drive you fly, they rarely touched the Porsche

Elucid does not lapse into the voices of others. Instead he flits between the chillingly real and poetic abstraction. A typical excerpt comes from the foreboding “Pommelhorse”: “It started as a lesson of achieving dreams and reaching fantastical heights/Ended with us watching the Challenger rocket smoldering on the black and white/Flame licked flame, like lovers do.” His voice––he sounds like a great singer whose vocal cords have been trimmed by a jagged knife—is an indispensable anchor on a record whose beats can be playful, even weightless.

The rappers are superb foils for one another; where woods’ language tends to be more straightforward, he will rap elliptically around a theme, while Elucid uses more cryptic phrasing but goes directly for the jugular. On “Slewfoot,” the latter raps of a simmering revolution that the white majority “...choose not to see–the labor’s free, with hidden fees/Razors tucked under wigs and weaves, plus degrees.”

Shrines begins by striving for some communion with the natural world. Toward the end of first track “Bitter Cassava,” Elucid raps about the summertime: the “thunder in the sky, rolling wide,” the jars of fireflies with holes poked in the lid. This gives way to a brief solo song of his, “Solarium,” which sounds like a mid-July celebration.

All is not perfect, of course—in that song some of the smiling friends on the block have turned informant, and in another the trees felled from forests are chopped up and spit out of “university printers” as counterfeit $20s. This feeling, this combination of wonderment and worry, emerges most clearly in the wrenching “Flavor Flav.” In that song–the Public Enemy hypeman’s cartoon clocks tick down your sprint toward middle age––Elucid recreates, with terrifying detail, the 1968 massacre at South Carolina State University, where three black men were killed and dozens of other protesters were injured when highway patrol officers opened fire at an anti-segregation demonstration. All nine officers were acquitted. Elucid draws attention to what he’s doing in the verse (“Traveling 50 years back, I only moved the pen six inches”), but not before he notes the humbling breadth of time––the future, the unknown, the “possibilities invisible, but endless.”

As its title might suggest, Shrines plays in a liminal space between the corporeal and something beyond, the “ritual smoke flumed above the tomb” and the Ruger underneath the robe. On the album cover a cop dangles by a thread on the outside of Antoine Yates’s apartment building, clutching a rifle in one hand, while the tiger rages inside.

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