We Buy Diabetic Test Strips
I'm in the park with the baby on the swings
When it hits me crazy, anything at all could happen to him
It isn’t long until those thoughts about his child turn back towards himself, ending the eight bars with “I watch him grow, wondering how long I got to live.” Being responsible for another person’s life has a way of making one reflect. Themes of self-reflection and mortality run through We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, the latest LP from Armand Hammer, the rap duo comprised of woods and ELUCID. ELUCID also features on “As the Crow Flies,” and in fact has more than three times as many lines, cementing the impression that while this track is a perfect closer to Maps, it is also a defacto Armand Hammer song that serves as a bridge to Test Strips. woods has proven himself to be a wizard at sequencing records, so it is safe to assume that this transition was intentional.
Armand Hammer began a decade ago, in 2013, the year after ELUCID first linked up with woods for two tracks on History Will Absolve Me. That record stands out in woods’ oeuvre as a turning point; the rapper may have thrown in the towel had that record not done well. And while he’s been on a legendary run of solo records since then, woods has always seemed to prefer working with others, a consummate collaborator with a strong independent streak. Camouflage (which was also the first release on his Backwoodz Studioz) is essentially a collaboration between woods and Vordul Mega (of Cannibal Ox), even if the latter only appears on five of the 20 tracks. Continuing to sharpen his skills as a member of the ‘supergroup’ The Reavers, woods later formed Super Chron Flight Brothers with Privilege, who also appeared on Camouflage, a group which fizzled out just as they were preparing to release their second record, Cape Verde (2010). So while History seemingly unlocked something in woods as a solo artist, he has been consistently sharpening his skills by building a community around him, including the producer-engineer Willie Green (Backwoodz’ increasingly not-so-secret weapon), a murderer’s row of contemporary producers (Blockhead, Messiah Musik, Steel Tipped Dove, August Fanon, Kenny Segal, Child Actor, Preservation, DJ Haram, etc), and of course the Hammer to his Arm, ELUCID.
ELUCID brings a wildly contrasting but complementary style to woods, who is a storytelling poet of incredible breadth and sensitivity, but who has often tended to avoid veering too far from conventional bar structures. ALL CAPS and lowercase, two sides of the same coin. The same contrast that made BRASS, woods’ phenomenal 2020/21 LP with Moor Mother, so successful is what makes Armand Hammer the best duo in rap. ELUCID and Moor Mother display profound adaptability, tackling beats that few others would even know how to begin to approach. ELUCID also brings to the table his ear as a producer, pushing hip hop into new territory (which is always been what hip hop does anyway), drawing on influences that have rarely surfaced in the genre previously (eg. This Heat, Swans, Godspeed, Gorilla Biscuits, Ornette Coleman, and Julius Eastman). ELUCID is also a connector, plugging woods into contemporary hip hop virtuosos like Pink Siifu and R.A.P. Ferreira (who has worked with ELUCID as the duo Nostrum Grocers).
Armand Hammer’s latest draws its title from those strange signs that are so ubiquitous in New York (and probably in many other American cities) that they just become another part of the background noise we ignore everyday as we navigate the urban environment. “Ca$h 4 Gold.” “We Buy Houses. Fast - In Any Condition." “We Buy Diabetic Test Strips.” Wait, what? A bit of defamiliarization, stop to think for a moment. Why? Are these just scams or are their folks out there who actually rely and benefit from this underground economy? It’s as compelling a metaphor for these veteran artists continuing to carve out their own lane. It doesn’t land with you? Cool, keep moving. It’s not for you. As if to drive the point home, the very first words we hear are ELUCID decisively stating “This ain't about you.”
The earliest Armand Hammer projects have some classic tracks, but the duo were still finding themselves, figuring out their chemistry. RACE MUSIC is the culmination of this period, and in retrospect is surprisingly consistent. There’s no doubt that it is Armand Hammer, even if they would continue to sharpen their skills over subsequent records. Those three early records all feature the same logo, which vanishes after the Furtive Movements EP (2014). It’s this second era when the group became just that, when the interplay between woods and ELUCID and their stable of producers elevated them to a stage where they could create arguably the greatest four album run in hip hop history: Rome, Paraffin, Shrines, and Haram. All one word titles, loosely conceptual, all collections of songs reflecting the theme of that one word. In fact, these are two pairs of albums, made together. Paraffin was ELUCID taking charge of the Rome era, while Shrines was made in between waiting on The Alchemist’s bespoke beats, as Haram was the duo’s first project with a sole producer.
Haram, produced by one of contemporary hip hop’s most respected producers, catapulted them to wider attention, though in fact their profile had been steadily growing by word of mouth alone, simply on quality. The weightiness of Paraffin cut through the noise, while Shrines (relative) lightness was a relief in 2020. Moor Mother & billy woods’ BRASS came in between Shrines and Haram, and is clearly related; it’s the first Alc beat to be released on a Backwoodz project, and the stable of producers reflects Armand Hammer’s production stable at the time, including new addition Child Actor, who had standout tracks on woods’ Terror Management (2019) and Shrines. The duo have since had dominating features on records by Earl Sweatshirt, Open Mike Eagle, and Pink Siifu, further expanding their audience and leaving longtime fans wondering what they would do next.
While I’d argue there is a serious argument to be made that their best record is Rome, any album could have a case made for it. And objectively the duo get sharper and sharper. Paraffin was a significant turning point as it included production from ELUCID for the first time, and a stronger bond between the two rappers, showcasing unusual beat choices even compared to their already eclectic back catalog. [For more of ELUCID’s production, see Osage, Every Egg I Cracked Today Was Double Yolked, SEERSHIP!, and BRB GOTTA GO CHARGE MY TOOTHBRUSH.] And for readers who may be perplexed to see so much digital ink spilt on a blog dedicated mostly to instrumental music, it is the experimental and forward-thinking production that most drew me into Armand Hammer. ELUCID’s influence is all over Paraffin; in some ways it sounds more like an ELUCID solo project, pushing woods to rap over soundscapes he would be unlikely to choose otherwise, and this is why it is ultimately an Armand Hammer record.
Some hear woods as the literary materialist and ELUCID the abstract spiritualist, but ELUCID is just as likely to distill moments of quotidian directness (“I’m running red lights and hate to I have my picture taken”), while woods often gestures towards big picture considerations obliquely, from an ironic distance (“Burst out that house of worship, that thing flamin, no amen.”) woods has become known for his culinary references (“Pork belly under the broiler/ Broccoli rabe, olive oil”), while ELUCID his sex raps (“I eat too much pussy to be a Rasta”), but they are just as likely to switch places: woods, “Knelt to worship, sis hiked up her habit”; ELUCID, “Split a rack of rib with the illest, not counting myself.” They each often manage to do both at once: woods, “Marbled steak, put it back in the case so it can age more/ Patient carnivore/ Ate til my jaw ached, wait for her to say I can have it raw”; ELUCID, “Green eyes, I'ma see you next lifetime / Somethin on the stove if you hungry.” But on Test Strips, there is much less of the culinary sex raps, and much more interpolation, to woods’ and ELUCID’s own catalogs as well as hip hop more generally, appropriate for the 50th anniversary of the culture. Maps is full of woods the gourmand at his best, while ELUCID’s recent features have contained some of his most intimate lines (“Suck my dick and tell me I’m beautiful.”) Having decisively honed their skills and established their brand as Armand Hammer over the last decade, Test Strips finds the duo striking out in a new direction, each rapper confident in their powers while always moving forward.
We Buy Diabetic Test Strips thus marks a new phase for the group. It’s their first record not on Backwoodz, instead released by Fat Possum, capitalizing on the wider attention post-Alc. It features the duo on the cover, something that we haven’t seen since their debut. Armand Hammer may have moved beyond Backwoodz but they haven’t abandoned the Backwoodz crew. Despite the great variety of producers and musicians on Test Strips, it’s mostly artists we’ve seen them collaborate with in the past. Of the most prominent guest producers, JPEGMAFIA, who has multiple beats on this project, previously had a beat on Rome, while El-P rapped on woods’ outstanding Aethiopes, though this is the first time we’ve heard either MC rap over one of his beats. Steel Tipped Dove and Messiah Musik have been mainstays since Armand Hammer’s debut, while August Fanon has been a presence across the Backwoodz catalog for many years, with each producer having one placement on Test Strips. Jeff Markey goes way back, even if we hadn’t heard much from him until the recent instrumental Sports & Leisure, followed by Skech185’s LP he produced entirely. PUDGE closed out ELUCID’s excellent I told Bessie, and Sebb Bash had a few beats there as well, though neither have previously been on an Armand Hammer record. Child Actor had standout tracks on Shrines as well as woods’ Terror Management, and many beats on Bessie. Preservation and Kenny Segal have produced entire projects for woods, with individual track placements throughout the label. The producers who haven’t previously released material with Armand Hammer are BLACK NOI$E, who produced half a song, and DJ Haram who has two productions on here, one co-produced by ELUCID (and an album highlight), although we did see Moor Mother’s 700 Bliss partner produce for them on the label sampler Hias Bias, also contributing a ShrapKnel remix that features woods rhyming over dnb breaks.
Now, if you’ve read this far and you’re a regular reader you might be wondering why we’re writing about a hip hop album at all. As several of us have argued over the years, hip hop has played a central role in the history of electronic music, and is an abiding source of sonic experimentation, though it is often denied its proper credit on both counts. Test Strips is an example of an album that does both, and is especially notable for its forward thinking production and instrumentation. Armand Hammer have cracked the code with the use of the live band, doing something nearly unprecedented; they assembled a crew of live musicians who generated material used by some of the producers on the album, with occasional windows into “the band”, usually vocal interludes and musical codas (eg. the end of “Flexible Unreliability”).
Unlike Haram, where the individual tracks bleed into one another, often as part of interstitial passages of vocal samples which obliquely address the album’s theme, Test Strips is more individuated; there are clear points of demarcation between each track. Vocal interludes reflect the theme but are confined to the end of tracks ("I'll holla at you in about, maybe... a couple months.") A particular song may have multiple parts; “Total Recall” features a classic Kenny Segal flute beat (perhaps Shabaka Hutchings’, though it may be a sample) which resolves by 40 seconds, when the beat switches and the song proper begins. It sounds to me like this is the direct result of the live players, a bit like when on a Dilla beat tape he lets us hear the unchopped sample before playing the beat. But these shorter movements also help control the pacing of what is their longest record since Race Music and Half Measures ten years ago.
While both of those records have many excellent songs, they feel bloated in a way that Test Strips does not, testament to how much the duo, who were already great artists in 2013, have refined their craft in their years of working together. This speaks to their lyrical interplay and beat choices, but also to the broader community they’ve assembled around them: mix, mastering and engineering from Willie Green, engineering from Steel Tipped Dove, both of whom are also producers, which isn’t a coincidence. They understand sound intimately. Listen closely and you’ll hear the grain of woods and ELUCID’s voice change throughout the album as the tone demands, for instance Green’s reamping of voices on “Trauma Mic,” assigning each MC their own brand of amplifier. “Trauma Mic” is a cold beat from DJ Haram in which time is kept on a crash symbol, but not the joyful crashes of a Ras G beat, but, as per the video, DJ Haram in heels beating you over the head with a lead pipe.
Other tracks feature multiple producers, generally with clear beat switches. For instance, the first part of “When it doesn’t begin with a kiss” has ELUCID rapping over a JPEG beat, with woods coming in when the beat switches to PUDGE, concluded by another ELUCID verse. But these aren’t two songs sandwiched together, but evidence of the duo’s advancement of songwriters. “How does it feel?” is ELUCID’s refrain throughout the song, and indeed throughout Test Strips, ELUCID often reflects on overcoming self-doubt and coming to self-actualization. “I felt more like myself,” he tell us, later asserting “They lied when they said it wasn't enough.” He knows better now.
Besides a killer beat from El-P, those from JPEG are some of the most accessible and contemporary sounding, but Peggy is also as likely to “scare the hoes” (so to speak), with some formless and abrasive sonics. That’s not to say the other producers sound old fashioned, but quite the opposite. They sound like the future. There’s the occasional head-nodding (standout “Blocked Calls” by August Fanon) but mostly this crop of producers stands at arm’s length from traditional hip hop, whether boom bap, trap or otherwise. Producers like Steel Tipped Dove, Messiah Musik, Willie Green, Preservation, DJ Haram, and Kenny Segal (not to mention ELUCID) all defy easy categorization, Child Actor even more so. His “Charms” on Shrines enchanted many listeners for its obliqueness, which others found alienating. “The Flexible Unreliability of Time & Memory” is even more askew, little more than a sample of bass swells, airy flute samples, and some texture, and yet it provides a backdrop to some of my favorite bars from both MCs.
If there is a core theme on Test Strips, it’s miscommunication (or better, “ill communication,” to keep with hip hop intertextuality). A phone number circulated on social media when Test Strips was announced lead to a static-laden dissonant and disorienting phone message, and that ill communication infects much of Test Strips, not quite granting a clearly unifying formal theme (as on Rome, Paraffin, Shrines, and Haram), but a number of intertwined themes: (Mis)communication, mortality, self-reflection, survival. These are reflected in the lyrical content as well in the vocal samples, interludes, and in many of the beats, which incorporate the sound of landlines, phone static, voice messages, and other sounds associated with telephony of an earlier era.
I’ve listened to the album as digital files, on vinyl, and on cassette, each of which breaks up the flow in different ways. This diversity of experiences informs how I think about the structure of the album, which is as always thoughtfully and intentionally sequenced by billy woods. “Landlines,” “Woke Up And Asked Siri How I'm Gonna Die,” “Flexible Unreliability,” and “When It Doesn’t Start With A Kiss'' form the first quarter of the album, including three beats from JPEG (who will return on the final track to close the circle). “Landlines” is clearly an introduction; it is drumless, abstract, and stage-setting, including telephone sounds that help establish the record’s themes. The all-important third track, produced by Child Actor, foreshadows the record as it will be, introducing the Diabetic Test Strip Players: Shabaka Hutchings (flutes, reeds), Max (Child Actor, keys/samples), Adi Meyerson (bass), Hisham Bharoocha (drums), Abdul Hakim Bilal (guitar), Jane Boxall (marimba/percussion), and DJ Stitches (cuts), with ELUCID and Willie Green directing (woods was on the road touring in support of his hat trick of solo records).
The second quarter consists of some of the album’s most standout tracks. “I Keep A Mirror In My Pocket,” produced by Preservation, includes the first feature, verse and hook from Cavalier full of clever double entendres and clever wordplay (“Eye on these pigs, empty advice is hollow tips”). The aforementioned “Trauma Mic” is already abrasive, given additional heaviness from Abdul Hakim Bilal’s cutting guitar, some of ELUCID’s toughest delivery (“What the fuck you know?”) and woods at his most wry (“Brothers tryna rhyme/ Told 'em it's a hundred n****s doing that right up the street/ Hate to say it, love to see it/ Brother dropped a project every month/ Got the nerve to ask if I peeped it”). Even Siifu, who is usually smooth as butter, is in punk mode, opening the song with outright screams (“Metal is my weapon!”). On “Niggardly (Blocked Call),” ELUCID raps a tight verse over a sinister August Fanon beat, beginning with the question “Whatever happened to not caring?” (I hear this as a reference to the tagline of The Care Bears Movie, which ELUCID has stated was the first film he ever saw in theaters, but mileage may vary.) He frustratedly raps about not being able to connect with someone he’s trying to reach (“Shouldn’t be this hard/ We’re not splitting atoms,” “Blocked call, voicemail still hit ya.”) So let’s call ELUCID’s part of this track “Blocked Calls,” as this is all just a prologue to what otherwise feels like a woods track, as 42 seconds in the beat switches to one of the most traditional boom bap sounding beats on the album. But it’s also the coldest on the album, which somehow manages to incorporate an air horn blast in a way that fits.
“The Gods Must Be Crazy,” produced by El-P, serves as a clear midpoint, the only track not touched by Green, and with no sign of the Test Strip Players. ELUCID’s verse is full of allusions to hip hop (Erykah Badu, Mos Def), while woods deftly weaves reference to Africa and American imperialism with pop culture. The title of the song is a reference of a 1980 South African comedy film in which a hunter-gather in the Kalahari desert finds a glass Coke bottle which fell from a plane, mistaking it as a gift from the gods, which he attempts to then return. woods spins a reference to Coke into allusions of the CIA’s involvement in the crack epidemic (“The rock pays in scale diagrams/ Coke out the sky, rocks big as your hand/ A Gulfstream 5 that don't ever land”). Another clear highlight on the record, “The Gods Must Be Crazy” is one of two songs remixed by dub legend Scientist for the We Dub Diabetic Test Strips 45. If only we could get an entire Armand Hammer record produced by El-P.
The features on Test Strips are where the duo really take things into new territory, including two from Junglepussy. “Y’all Can’t Stand Right Here,” with a sample of MF DOOM (“Ayo, yo, y'all can't stand right here”) throughout, from the classic “Rhymes Like Dimes,” includes wildly contrasting features from Junglepussy and Moneynicca (of Soul Glo). Who but Armand Hammer could pull that off? Junglepussy’s delivery is akin to hip hop crooning; she refuses to raise her voice, making that mic preamp work, making us lean in to her. She knows “Everybody want this energy/ But not everybody got invited.” Once again, another theme of the album is that not everything is for everyone. “I ain't trying to be divisive/ But I don't want to see no devices,” she concludes, so put down your phones and be thankful to be present. Meanwhile the vocalist of Philly punk band Soul Glo is literally screaming instead of doing ad libs. The final verse returns to woods, which includes a title drop: “Stress will mutate your genes, we buy diabetic test strips/ Show me not the ends without the means, useless.” Besides showcasing the flutes of Shabaka Hutching (Sons of Kemet, Moor Mother and billy woods’ “Furies,” and most recently on André 3000’s New Blue Sun), Kenny Segal’s beat for “Total Recall” finds ELUCID and a chorus singing the refrain “Yo' ass gotta go / When they push that button,” interpolating Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” while also recalling the panic button many stores and receptionists use to call security on an unwelcome guest.
Junglepussy returns for the first verse of “Empire BLVD,” produced by Willie Green, a track which makes up the b-side on Scientist’s dub remix. “Do I look like a spliff to you? I don't care who call me difficult,” she raps, exuding supreme confidence. Coming in with his trademark hype, Curly Castro (half of ShrapKnel) brings the hook, before woods calls out off-base interpretation of his lyrics (“Misrepresenting the rhymes and all that, imagine Jesus reading the gospels / SMH Rap Genius improbable readings, yet the God's penis left her docile”). Castro delivers not just the hook of the song, but the third verse, full of images of urban poverty (“Mom's wanna shoot up, waiting guard hours/ Katie on the front porch, playing with revolvers”) and plenty of references to hip hop history (including allusions to songs by Nas, Masta Ace, and Slick Rick). ELUCID’s final verse is characteristically abstract and poetic, opaque in its totality but with individual lines that are powerfully concise even on their own (“They don't want stories, just numbers," "If you can't be used, you're useless," "You remind me of someone I used to / know Someone who used to kick my ass"), conveying a profound sense of discontent. But it’s never enough to just look at his words written down. As he raps on Rome’s “Dead Money,” “I don't move if I don't feel it in my spirit / A lyric ain't a lyric til I spit it.” So much is carried by his voice, in the delivery.
"Don't Lose Your Job" featuring Pink Siifu and Moor Mother is another album highlight. Produced by Black Noi$e and Jeff Markey, the beat begins with warm electric organ loops, with woods lamenting over the high price of gas, on a song about struggling to make ends meet. woods’ verse begins with an all-time great opening couplet (“Break up weed on one phone, FaceTime on the other / Break up with me, I'm a G, I stay friends with your mother"). Pink Siifu returns for his second feature, this time more relaxed, contemplating the importance of proper compensation while struggling with intoxicants to get through the work day (“Wings ain't the only thing sauced”). ELUCID comes in with the beat change, breaking with the traditional verse structure to muse on the theme of mortality that runs through Test Strips. “What doesn’t kill you makes you blacker,” he intones, after invoking his children. “I feel like I’m gonna buy life insurance and just…. (die),” he worries, before asking “What instrumental y’all gonna play at my funeral?” The song finishes with a peaceful resolution from Moor Mother, whose words may very well be improvised but whose careful delivery communicates more than words, which are nonetheless grounding, a reminder of what is most important: “You, me, our home / Our body, our breath.”
With all the features out of the way, the final three songs make up the last quarter of the album, perhaps the clearest articulations of the album’s themes. On “Supermooned,” jointly produced (rather than comprised of a beat switch) by ELUCID with DJ Haram, begins with a classic ELUCID mantra: “What's wrong with me doesn't matter if you can't do anything about it,” and ends with him musing on identity, “I can't been seen / They can't find me,” recalling the theme of Paraffin’s “ECOMOG” (“To be seen and not seen at the same time is a mind fuck.”) But in between are some of woods’ most powerful lines, moving from the founding injustice of our nation’s history (“ Christmas Day / George Washington's heart a frozen river, boy / Opps in the backwoods, slave teeth in the mouth when he say n****”) to the deeply personal (“She doesn't want to be in love but pulled me deeper like a supermoon”). “Switchboard” is another direct reference to telephones and communication, and yet another classic ELUCID mantra: “A face behind this mask behind this face / So many people at the same time.” woods’ verse reflects on existential dread, both abstract and concrete. He begins with the ominous “I can't see it yet, but something's coming (If you're not scared, you's a dummy).” But then conjures a man leaving his lover to identify a body in the morgue, returning home only to be plagued by doubts of an unfaithful partner. (“Why the cellar door open when it wasn't?”) And this is the power of woods as a writer. He’s not using big words, and usually it doesn’t even matter if you don’t catch his references to literature, geopolitics, rap lyrics, or sports. A line like “I swear there used to be different seasons” is as evocative as anything.
The album could well have ended there, but just as the album has an intro, we need an outro, again produced by JPEGMAFIA. Closer “The Key is Under the Mat” ties it all together, a song about endings (“That security deposit ain't comin back.”) woods worries about what he could have done differently ("Possession 9/10 but obsessing over missing fractions", "I shoulda been lashed to the mast"), while still achieving a kind of peace, “free as a bird,” appreciating what he has, recalling his closing bars on “Landlines” (“Feeling some type of way, put my family under one roof / Only go inside once I hear 'em start to shoot”) and the start of his second verse on “Blocked Calls” (“I think about my brothers that's long gone and this was all they ever dreamed”). woods and ELUCID take turns reciting the chorus, which makes reference to the critically acclaimed comic series Love and Rockets, whose protagonists and sometimes lovers Maggie and Hopey make their own way. ELUCID’s verse also speaks of precarious peace and acceptance (“Bedtime story, lullaby, lingerin kisses,” “I believe in transformation”) while alluding to possible discord in the world and at home (“You can't stop the profit,” a last bit of hip hop intertextuality, evoking Jeru’s “You Can’t Stop the Prophet”).
Test Strips contains many of the subjects we’ve come to expect on an Armand Hammer record: water, poverty, urban life, gentrification, complicated politics, crime, weed, relationships. But it also sees the duo aging, growing into their roles as fathers, both of their children and to the wider underground hip hop scene of which they are now elders. And while some rappers find they have nothing to rhyme about in their 40s, woods and ELUCID have shown that growth is still possible, that their best work will always be their next record. On “The Flexible Unreliability of Time & Memory,” a song whose formal composition mirrors its lyrical themes, ELUCID states “I'm tryna only say what's necessary / Should I play it again?” while woods, is more imperative: “My records spin like a bandsaw / My record speak for itself, don't try to add-on.” As so many other critics have done, I’ve disobeyed, musing here at great length. And I could continue to do so. But that’s enough from me. Play it again. (Joseph Sannicandro)