November 5, 2013

armand-hammer-race-musicJonah Bromwich knows but one wealthy industrialist.

“Ephemera” initially seemed like the right word to describe Race Music. These are loose associations communing over semi-hardcore beats. Philly and D.C. kids, Elucid, Billy Woods, rapping as Armand Hammer, ripping wisdom-filled one liners all over the place. I don’t have it all together just yet. T-shirts and khakis and substance over style and the whole thing combined is so dense that I needed a lyrical cheat sheet just to get everything more or less straightened out. It’d been weeks of me puzzling over this thing: coffee, cigarettes, mezcal, all put to the test in the course of making it make sense. It’s like a murder mystery, and I needed the words in front of me, just to ensure that I missed as little as possible.

True, writing in this style is the height of indulgence, and double true that many may abandon at the sight of that first paragraph of run-on, but I think and hope that this style has something to do with Armand Hammer, their fluidity and the various intangibles that make Race Music a great, not good, rap record.

The density too, is an issue in a world of blink-worthy music. It helps that the beats here are a little to the left of totally accessible, oddball pop squalls to amplify your paranoia and keep your buzz alive.

And the songs are often king-sized treasures: “Shark Fin Soup,” a tale as hard as garbage collection, luxury-less, I remember something that Brownesville Ka said in an interview, that sometimes you just need to hear someone whose in the same situation as you coming out of the busted up car stereo. This track fits the bill.

The lyrics are swimming in signifiers and if you frequent the Passion you’ll know the type, it’s that melodious assonance and alliteration that we cling to like James Franco to his Japanese sex pillows. But it’s not all empty style for Billy Woods and his compadre Elucid: the occasional brilliant line merits so many rewinds, that stuff is buried deep but unearth it and chew on it, it’s like arrowroot, good for your brain.

Let’s take an early salvo, just a one-liner, nothing, it seems to pay attention to, not at first glance: “so goth I was born black,” raps Elucid, his first line on the whole damn thing. It could be meaningless, but then again, the album is called Race Music so look a little deeper. Consider how a thought like that is antithetical to the normal portrayal, how Elucid is putting his “gothness” as more essential to his person than his blackness. Then think about how casually revolutionary that is, how it’s a way of understanding a person outside the normal assumed context of a rapper and allow your jaw to drop for a moment when you realize that this record is stuffed with this shit, that it’s only 45 seconds in. That’s what I’ve been dealing with on this case, people, I shit you not.

I’ll dig up other examples, just so you get the picture. “Sunni’s Blues” doesn’t give itself over quite so well to that kind of quickfire explication, but given the title, and the mention of both “the wandering jew” and “the new white Harlem” it’s possible to guess at the seriousness here. That the song happens to be catchy, mention Gilbert Arenas, is just icing. Just around the corner, a couple of bars down, we’re in an entirely different neighborhood. This one is occupied by a tribute to the original juvenile offender, Willie Bosket, an imagining of what it feels like to be cursed with an undeniable type of violent crazy, and the suggestion that maybe it isn’t all that far off, — a particularly impressive transition when you see its link to the preceding track “Frog and Toad are Friends” which evokes black history in a singular set of well-chosen images.

It almost feels disrespectful to skim over so many other tracks. But when a six-minute clinic involves the names Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle, samples Cults without seeming saccharine, it’s nearly impossible to avoid highlighting. “New Museum” exemplifies a brand of rap that will never become massively popular, the purest form of what these guys are peddling, six minutes of word-crunching rappers reading you the riot act, each with his signature style but all making a kind of music that’s necessarily rare.

Thinking man’s rap tends to suggest sermonizing, but these guys are about wordplay, semantics, the sounds that words make as they push past the mouth, and intelligence embedded in a nest of references so tight that you damn near have to claw your way in. The lessons have to be sought out: they’re not resting on the surface. No Fiasco-isms here. So I’m not saying it’s impossible not to enjoy—after all this is music that, if you turn your brain off while it’s on, you’ll just be consistently aware that you’re missing something, like speed-reading Pynchon. Maybe. But if you’re looking for rap that’s challenging, weird,and downright inspiring, get yourself a listen or twelve of Race Music.

Stream it all at Steady Bloggin

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