First Listen #64: Armand Hammer and The Alchemist’s ‘Haram’

Last week’s First Listen was from the “I Finally Listen to a Project from an Artist I’ve Wanted to Hear an Album from for a Long Time” collection, and this week’s is from the “This Album Has Been Hyped Up on the Internet So Lemme Hear It” collection. This time featuring Armand Hammer and the Alchemist. The Alchemist isn’t a new name for me. I’ve done First Listens on Boldy James’s The Price of Tea in China (2020) and Freddie Gibbs’s Alfredo (2020) – both produced by Alc, and I’ve heard plenty of singles from other artists that he’s produced. He’s a super talented producer, no doubt. Armand Hammer is a new one for me, though. The duo (made up of Billy Woods and Elucid – hailing from New York City) released its first project in 2013 and has released a handful of projects over the years. Haram (2021) is the group’s most recent, and the Alchemist takes the lead on the production on here. While looking through a list of recent releases, Haram was the album receiving the majority of the praise from the folks on Reddit. And I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. 

Photo Credit (via)

2021: Haram

(via Genius)

I really wanted to enjoy this project, and there were things that I did like about it, but I probably won’t listen to Haram again. “Abstract Hip Hop” (I don’t know, that’s what this album (and albums like it) have been referred to on Reddit) is very hit or miss for me. I often lean towards projects that feel a little more cohesive (or at least have a clear narrative/sound guiding them), but everything with abstract hip hop feels disjointed and muddy. It feels like trying to walk around an unknown area with your eyes closed. And every project doesn’t have to be To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), IGOR (2019), After Hours (2020), or 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014), but there’s nothing else holding a project together, a clear narrative offers a useful path through. I found myself really struggling to understand what this album was offering, and that frustration wasn’t cleared up by the end of the project, I left with more questions than answers. 

I swore vengeance in the seventh grade

Not on one man, the whole human race

I’m almost done, God be praised

I’m almost done, every debt gets paid

I used to cut grass and smile like I meant it

We squatted in the shade when the mowers overheated

Came home stinkin’ of gas in the evening


I think something else that kind of frustrated me while listening to this project was that it felt like the type of album that white kids would resell for $300. And that’s not the fault of the folks that made it. I would like to think that the purpose of them making this project wasn’t to just be able to capitalize off of it. I could make out stories and conversations about existing both in Blackness and Americanness within the lines of the songs (as well as other things), but I couldn’t shake the feeling of this being an album that “white hip hop heads” laud because it’s so “raw, man. Nobody’s making music like this!” I could feel the “this album is teaching me all I need to know about Black people” surrounding this project. And the fact that this was one of my immediate thoughts about this project is pretty sad to me. And again, that’s no fault of Armand Hammer; from what I was able to decipher, this project means more than to be a book of Blackness for white folks. But this album (and albums like Pray 4 Paris (2019) and The Price of Tea in China) falls very easily and quickly into the “hip hop that’s commodifiable for white people” bucket. It’s only been four days since the project was released, and folks are already talking about having to potentially pay a lot for it when it hits the resell market. So I don’t know. I don’t want to use that as a point against this project, but it’s an important thing for me to acknowledge.

Despite all this, there were a few things that I liked about this project. I kind of like how the verses on here (from Armand Hammer and the collaborators) felt more like spoken word than traditional rapping. Sometimes that added to how disjointed the project felt, but other times, it lent itself well to the storytelling aspect. I also liked the incorporation of other genres of Black music in the production. There were some elements of gospel and jazz thrown in there, as well as a sample of the end of the extended version of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” at the end of “Sir Benni Miles.” There was also a line on “Falling Out the Sky” on Billy Woods’s verse where he says, “Spliffs with keef at the tip / It felt sleepy at night, but I like that, felt like you could relax / Like you could disappear, like I wasn’t surrounded by the past.” That line, as well as the song as a whole, felt the most tangible to me out of the other songs on the project. I guess that idea of overall tangibility is what I was missing in this project. 

Even though I didn’t really enjoy this project off of the first listen as much as I thought I was going to, Haram wasn’t bad. Armand Hammer and the Alchemist are all extremely talented musicians and artists, so at the very least they put together a good project. They do their jobs well on here, so that part of it was light work for them. And I may give the album another chance because of that. We’ll see. 

Overall Project Rating

Featured Image via GQ

(listen to Haram on Spotify by clicking the image below)

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