“Being observant is in our nature, and we’re always finding patterns, even in places they aren’t supposed to be” Armand Hammer’s ELUCID tells me. This qui vive is what led to their latest album We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, coming across the phrase planted on signs throughout their New York neighbourhood. “There was a sense of mystery to it, and it only gets darker and more absurd the more you get to the bottom of it.”
These signs Armand Hammer were seeing served as a gateway into the world of test strip reselling. According to a piece in The New York Times, manufacturers of the strips set high prices, and then offer hefty rebates to become the main supplier of insurance companies. This leads to the uninsured either having to pay marked-up prices or looking to the more affordable option of resellers. It’s a rabbit hole into the bleak effects of American healthcare, and the pressure of extreme capitalism.
These harsh realities manifest into a glitchy atmosphere of Armand Hammer’s latus opus. The production is rich with spiralling synths and barrages of drums. ELUCID and Billy Woods use impassioned cadences and urgent flows to speak about the fears of life’s digitisation on ‘The Flexible Unreliability of Time & Memory’, and the dread of inflation on ‘Don’t Lose Your Job’. What started as a simple observation, finds the duo committing hip-hop espionage. “Curiosity is too embedded in my nature to not wonder what’s behind the door” Billy Woods explains.
Chaos is a common occurrence throughout Armand Hammer’s music. Every scattered simile speaks to their bewildering observations, as they stomp the grounds of New York. Their shouty deliveries match the volume of the city’s bustling streets, and the flurries of frustration match the rapidly changing stature of The Big Apple. New York has seen over 80,000 fatalities to date due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and between 2020-2022, 468,000 people moved out of the city. Just earlier this year, a million rent-stabilised apartments increased in price by 3%, and reports show that 50% of working-age citizens are struggling to cover costs for basic needs. “I remember being in New York on September 11th, and I remember being in New York for the pandemic. It would be too long of a conversation for me to tell you how the city’s changed, but it’s for sure been intense,” Billy Woods says.
I bring up Wiki’s 2020 song ‘Roof’ as an example of finding serenity within the city, but Billy’s past roof access always required climbing “rickety ladders”, and ELUCID’s last apartment with a roof courtyard was the place he watched “the plane crash into the second tower.” The complications of New York’s concrete jungle aren’t new to Armand Hammer and have acted as the catalyst for their commentary across past albums like Shrines and The Alchemist-produced HARAM. We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is just the latest in their attempts to make sense of the pandemonium around them.
Even though We Buy Diabetic Test Strips explores a dystopian atmosphere, Armand Hammer often finds humour in this darkness. Songs like ‘Total Recall’ reference Sun Ra’s nuclear weapons protest anthem ‘Nuclear War’, to then later feature Billy Woods letting off lyrics like “Hard truths like cheesecake is a pie.” The duo presents the grim nature of life and then reminds you of the joys of existence with comedic one-liners. “People sometimes have a hard time imagining comedy and pain coexisting, but to me it normal,” Billy Woods states. “Before any of this, I had a group called Super Chron, where we used comedy and tragedy masks as motifs. I think the intersection of humour and adversity has become one of Armand Hammer’s sweet spots.”
Alongside the comedy is the comfort of companionship, as We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is Armand Hammer’s most collaborative album yet. Artists like Pink Siifu, Moor Mother, JUNGLEPUSSY, and Cavalier come along for the journey on vocal duties, whereas production features contributions from JPEGMAFIA, EL-P, Black Noise, and more. It results in the perspectives of many, using past experiences to help highlight the paths of this album’s peculiar adventure. Every artist here is struggling to make sense of the world around them, but they’re venturing into the unknown as a unit, avoiding isolation and finding strength in community. “I feel like the collaboration on this record resembles that of the album title, where we’re all like this underground, unspoken network that people on the outside know nothing about,” ELUCID says. “I think the people on this record represent a frequency in hip-hop that’s connecting with people as well, and I’m happy to be a part of this because there was a time when artists like us weren’t accepted, due to not matching what people thought a rapper should be like.”
We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is a testament to the power of observation. What started as Armand Hammer noticing an influx of signs around their neighbourhood, has now culminated in what might be the duo’s best album yet, simultaneously exploring a world of overlooked struggle and creating a piece of art that represents the bond they share with their counterparts. It makes you question the corruption that exists around us daily but reminds us we’re not alone in being scared and confused. It encourages us to become observers ourselves, but also provides us a place to laugh when things feel too hectic. At the start, Armand Hammer’s commentary may seem scary but hope eventually reveals itself in their unique brand of hip-hop. “As dark as our music may get, we always prioritise showcasing the humanity you can find in the world,” ELUCID says. “We feel a responsibility to highlight the fact that despite the darkness, people are still out here shining.”