50 Years of Hip-Hop: 2018 – Armand Hammer - "Vindaloo"

50 Years of Hip-Hop
Martin Douglas

Through 2023, KEXP is celebrating 50 Years of Hip-Hop. Each week we'll celebrate a different year in hip-hop, this week we're focusing on 2018 and Armand Hammer's "Vindaloo." Read and listen to the piece below and subscribe to the 50 Years of Hip-Hop podcast.

The art of lyricism is a time-honored tradition, not just in hip-hop. Humans expressing themselves through reciting words is an ancient practice; folk tales to Shakespeare to Bob Dylan. It’s self-evident how rap took lyricism to new levels and how those lyrical styles evolved over the past half-century. Linguistically, hip-hop has not only served as the apex of the recited word in its best moments, but has created new dialects and many new additions to the English language. A long cry from being lambasted as a fad, rap music has become a course of study at universities all over the world.

Armand Hammer is the type of rap group that was meant to be overstudied. After spending years and years toiling away at their craft — as well as being the toast of dyed-in-the-wool rap obsessives — the duo of billy woods and ELUCID would eventually become part of a new vanguard of rap writing. 

Sometimes it may feel like you need a bibliography to unpack the figures and topics in Armand Hammer songs, right down to the name of their group. Armand Hammer was the son of a communist radical and a businessman, who, among other things, attempted to broker peace between the United States and several communist countries.

As for Armand Hammer the group, one minute they’re referencing Steely Dan and renowned artist Jenny Holzer; the next, infamous politician Mobutu Sese Seko is namechecked. Allusions aside, the type of writing in woods and ELUCID’s notebooks demands repeat listens, and not just on the surface level serotonin of hitting the rewind button after a hot punchline. Though woods and ELUCID, as steeped in hip-hop tradition as they are wary of being traditionalists, do have plenty of instantly rewind-worthy bars.

Though they have separate approaches to craft, separate upbringings, separate lives to a degree, they’ve managed to fuse their individual styles, intellectual concerns, and emotional interiors into something difficult to split into two parts. Over the course of six albums as a group as many more as solo artists, Armand Hammer have carved out a big space for their aesthetically and intellectually daring work. 

There was once a long-held sentiment about how we as Black people could only gain material wealth through sports, entertainment, and selling drugs. “Vindaloo,” from Armand Hammer’s 2018 masterpiece Paraffin, explores this topic like only woods and ELUCID can. The beat from longtime Armand Hammer collaborator Messiah Musik falls somewhere between the sort of boom-bap that put New York hip-hop on the map and a harp-driven dream sequence. 

woods navigates the rhythm of the heavy drums by crafting a short story where the narrator pockets money from an incorrect count and contemplates running away with the full drop-off. He surveys a vast expanse of liquor stores and tenement buildings, transitioning into a meditation on formal education and how people get rich by circumventing it.

Not the one to tell shorty, “Slow your role”
The kid was keen
Made the exception,
“Take it from me, go get that degree”
He dropped out, got rich as can be
Seen him grinning on TV, all I said was, "my G," under my breath

Appropriate to woods’s writing style, his verse alludes to light-skinned NBA players behind the three-point line and Nazi Germany’s short-lived invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and ends with a young man getting his first piece of jewelry. 

ELUCID’s verse, as revealed by his process, is harder to pin down conceptually, including the smells of a feast followed by a short grammar lesson.

Old school, household smell like soul food
Slow stew
Spoon over pearl couscous
Onion loop, bundled herb
Built for comfort not for speed
All that with a whole bird plus the giblets
Black always with a capital B

ELUCID’s style leans heavily on fractured imagery and stream-of-consciousness meditation, illustrating clattering shackles next to a figure climbing pineapple trees. He offers a reading recommendation (Zora Neale Hurston) and ends with the parallel between the cotton trade over a hundred years ago and the crack-cocaine trade which came about sixty years later. ELUCID neatly ties the mosaic of his second verse neatly to woods’s character in the first bar either skimming off the top or taking advantage of a colleague’s mistake. Masterful.

There are so many outstanding examples of hip-hop writing throughout the course of Armand Hammer’s vast and ever-growing catalog. “Vindaloo” came at a time where the duo were entering a new level of recognition for their singular writing styles. Just when you think hip-hop music has exhausted all the ways it can dazzle listeners and capture the imagination of intellectually curious fans of the written word around the world, another MC reveals their vast talent. In this case, two MCs.

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