“I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis.”
This past summer, I sat at my computer and typed these words, the opening sentence of James Baldwin’s 1962 essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.” I find it instructive to retype other people’s prose — it forces you to think about their word choice, their sentence structure, in more depth than you would if you were simply reading it. And Baldwin is a good writer to study: his writing in “Down at the Cross” is dense and idea-driven but still artful. It is artful without being too showy or ornamental.
The Brooklyn-based rap duo Armand Hammer also recently reproduced part of “Down at the Cross,” in the liner notes for their first official album together, Race Music. James Baldwin seems a fitting intellectual and spiritual lodestar for Armand Hammer. Baldwin’s “Down at the Cross” was an extended reflection on the state of race relations on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and you could say that Race Music is also a kind of summa of black experience in America another half century later. But “Down at the Cross” was not a straightforward piece of political reportage — Baldwin paired an account of meeting the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad with a slightly mysterious memoir about his dalliance with organized Christianity as a youth in Harlem, also touching on sexuality, psychology, and global affairs. In short, “Down at the Cross” is expansive and omnivorous, even a bit strange.
So too is Race Music. Elucid and billy woods — the two rappers who have joined together to make Armand Hammer — have crafted a potent record about life, art, sex, drugs, politics, and violence. It’s filled with as much macabre imagery — demons, vampires, spirits — as film and sports allusions (Do the Right Thing, Gilbert Arenas, Mo Vaughn, Donald Sutherland, and Boomer Esiason all make appearances). Most interestingly, it’s a historical record, flush with references to past wars, public figures, movements, and ideas. Elucid and billy woods partake in a kind of historical flattening or synchronicity: they deftly weave images from disparate times and places into forceful volleys of verbiage. In the record’s opening verse alone, we get nods to America’s recent misadventures abroad (“These the beats they play for ghost detainees”), the back-to-Africa movement (“Red, gold, and green/ Marcus Garvey”), and World War II (“London blitz air horns/ He spit that Stalin vs. Hitler”). The title itself brings to mind the early 20th century, when labels explicitly marketed African American music as “race records,” and the James Baldwin excerpt in the liner notes harks back to the social tumult of the 1960s.
Elucid and billy woods largely eschew easy-to-follow narratives in favor of something looser and more poetic. On “Cloisters” — a jazzy standout track from the album’s second half — the title seems to refer both to the Cloisters museum on the northern tip of Manhattan (“Tripping balls on the bank of the Hudson/ Earth rumbling/ Reevaluating my function”) and to the more general idea of a cloister as a place for quiet contemplation. On billy woods’ verse, he raps about returning to his hometown of Washington, DC, where he takes his mother’s 96 Camry out for a nighttime drive to revisit old haunting grounds: “It’s houses where those woods was/ Strange faces/ Kinda bugged my peoples gone out the hood/ Up county in bracelets over drugs/ Or got a job, a wife, up and moved.” He ends up smoking weed in a park, where “the trees’ leaves whisper truths” to him, echoing a line from Elucid’s earlier verse: “400-year-old trees whisper how they sent for me/ Kush school of mystery.”
Most of the songs on the record work similarly to “Cloisters,” with the two rappers delivering verses that differ in tone and perspective, but play off of a central theme (and each other) quite nicely. On “Where the Wild Things Are,” about the ingrained culture of violence among inner city kids, Elucid opens with a first-person verse that seems to draw on his own childhood memories (“First fight came home with a bloody nose/ Second fight same day pops like don’t step back in this yard if you don’t take control”), while billy woods follows with a sharp, complementary third-person verse (“Eyes squeezed tight squeezing off/ On a-alikes with the ArmaLite/ Born yesterday, but hey/ They was up all night”). On “New Museum” — Race Music’s most immediately accessible track, thanks to a catchy Cults-sampling beat by Marmaduke — Elucid and woods are joined by L.A. rappers Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle for a deceptively upbeat song about struggling to make it as an artist. “The Rent is Too Damn High,” another highlight, is a beautiful yet eerie song about the physical realities of slum living, featuring the most memorable hook of the record: “I can hear my neighbors fucking/ Calling on Jesus Christ/ Radiator cold as ice/ But outside the heat stay on like pilot light.”
On “Sunni’s Blues,” Armand Hammer conjure imagery of overseas conflict (“Crack paratroopers/ Carpetbaggers blend with the looters”), racial violence here in the states (“Pleading with the sheriff that you just passing through”), and an array of cultish topics (Haile Selassie, Jim Jones, and Dwight York are all name checked) over a caustic beat by A.M. Breakups. On Elucid’s verse, he manages to juxtapose the Middle East, the American South, and biblical times in just nine words, when he raps: “Plastic explosive level tabernacle/ Children mangled, four little girls.”
The title “Sunni’s Blues” is likely a play on the 1957 James Baldwin short story “Sonny’s Blues,” about two brothers from Harlem whose lives take very different paths (one becomes a teacher and family man, the other a jazz musician and junkie). “Sonny’s Blues” ends with a beautiful set piece in a downtown club, as the narrator watches his brother Sonny play piano in a quartet. It is some of the best writing about music in all of American fiction. As the band starts up, Baldwin’s narrator muses: “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it.”
If this is true, Armand Hammer do not make it easy on us. The beats on Race Music are gruff and challenging, and the hooks offer little reprieve. Many of the verses require repeated listens (perhaps even Wikipedia) before they start to coalesce, and there are a number of tracks that still don’t make complete sense to me. But if you keep listening, you will hear something ambitious, powerful, and smart. Race Music is an irony-free Big Statement record that takes on serious issues. It feels, in some ways, like an old-fashioned kind of record. But as Baldwin wrote in “Sonny’s Blues”: “While the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”
01. Hatchet Job
02. Black Ark
03. Shark Fin Soup
04. Sunni’s Blues
05. Frog and Toad Are Friends
06. Willie Bosket
07. No Roses
09. Hand Over Fist (Feat. Creature)
10. Where the Wild Things Are
11. Renaissance Garments
13. New Museum (Feat. Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle)
14. The Rent is Too Damn High (Feat. L’Wren)
17. White Lies