Armand Hammer: We Buy Diabetic Test Strips

Backwoodz Studioz engineer Willie Green has said he wants people to have a “physical reaction” when they listen to one of the label’s records. Last year, Green and Armand Hammer’s Elucid assembled a crew of players for a session at the Greenhouse in Gowanus, Brooklyn, with the idea of jamming to beats and following where it led them. It was the first time that Shabaka Hutchings (flute), Adi Myerson (bass), Max Heath (synthesizer), and Hisham Bharoocha (drums) had met; Elucid says that watching their early fumblings give way to grooves with spiritual heft was foundational to the creation of We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, Armand Hammer’s sixth album. By Green’s own rubric, the album is a success—it can feel like being tugged by dozens of different hands yet still being pulled forward.

That organic jam session—in which relative strangers found the funk in their very first meeting—mirrors the way that Elucid and his partner in the duo Armand Hammer, Backwoodz founder billy woods, have collected a slew of eccentric personalities and given them a common purpose. woods has called Elucid Backwoodz’s “secret weapon” as an A&R, and he might be right; it’s hard to imagine anyone else making a record like this sound coherent. woods and producer Kenny Segal’s 2023 album Maps was a vividly evocative tour diary populated by colorful characters, but when the two rappers work together, Elucid lifts woods into the ether.

Armand Hammer’s music can be indecipherable by design, with profundity often camouflaged by abstraction. On We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, they contemplate their inevitable end, often graphically (“Men pregnant with death, frightened at the quickening/It totters on unsteady legs, boy you invited to the christening,” woods raps), yet manage to stave off hopelessness. The two continue to process life’s indignities with absurdist humor and a caustic wit, telling disjointed stories through intersecting narratives that only come into focus when viewed as a whole.

The most unconventional of their guest stars is, of course, JPEGMAFIA, the Baltimore rapper and producer known for his abrasive productions and persona. JPEGMAFIA’s work accounts for a little more than a quarter of the album, but his glitchy, warped aesthetic bookends the tracklist and helps define the mood. He opens the album with a hypnotic synth loop and a vocal sample stuttering in the background; there’s no bass, just a single snare crack punctuated by a landline dial tone. He’ll bury a gentle melody beneath cacophonous yelling, then switch the beat mid-song to weave video game SFX into boom-bap drums and drench the whole thing in reverb (“When It Doesn’t Start With a Kiss”). Even in the slow and quiet moments, chaos lurks in his productions—an interrupted moan, a hair-raising scrape—and it’s fascinating to watch woods and Elucid adapt their flows to meet the challenge.

How billy woods’ Backwoodz Studioz Became New York’s Best Underground Rap Label

We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is as much a Backwoodz Studioz showcase as an Armand Hammer album. Over the last decade or so, Backwoodz has steadily established itself as a paragon of the New York underground, an example of how a community and a business can feed off one another. You can see the equity as plain as their publishing splits. Backwoodz’s roster is all over the LP—guest verses from Curly Castro and Moor Mother; production from Steel Tipped Dove, Kenny Segal, Jeff Markey, and Willie Green—resulting in an album that gels despite its idiosyncrasies. It’s fitting that there’s an El-P production credit, as his now-defunct indie label Definitive Jux was to the New York underground in the ’90s as Backwoodz is today: a loose collective of left-of-center artists that coalesced around creative freedom rather than a particular sound, emphasizing transparency in business, if not always their art.

The guests bring a welcome sense of contrast to Armand Hammer’s own styles. Moor Mother’s breathy enunciation floats through woods and Elucid’s more pronounced flows, while Pink Siifu’s monotone straddles the line between lethargic and loquacious. The standout feature is Brooklyn rapper and NYU adjunct professor Junglepussy, who remains bafflingly overlooked even though she’s typically the coldest MC in the room wherever she turns up. She’s credited on two songs—“Y’all Can’t Stand Right Here” and “Empire BLVD”—sounding extremely hot and unbothered, disposing of men and lesser rappers as casually as a chewed-up wad of gum: “Sitting on his face ’til I’m inspired/Why fuck him, I’m a better writer.”

Elucid and woods are no longer young men, and We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is rooted in the existential angst of middle age, when you find yourself decades deep into a career and a family, wondering where to go next. “I am the mud/Waiting for the flood that they said would never come/High-water pants on the shoulders of my elders/I be knowin' better, but ain't done it yet/Some don't know no better and they won't,” Elucid raps on “Trauma Mic,” his voice tinged with the weariness that comes with wisdom.

The two rappers’ free-associative style doesn’t typically emphasize bold-faced themes; their writing is richly imagistic but also cryptic, and they tend to slip laterally from idea to idea and couplet to couplet. But there’s an undercurrent of unease in their references to knocked-out teeth, oxygen tanks shackled to a leg, a suicide bomber’s vest that doesn’t explode. “The aperitif bittersweet, no pleasure/My heart pump ketamine,” raps woods on “Niggardly (Blocked Call),” summing up the anhedonic mood.

The album draws its title from the innumerable signs posted on poles around New York City’s outer boroughs—a symptom of America’s prohibitively expensive healthcare system, which turns insured diabetics into street-level suppliers.. The signs are everywhere yet easy to ignore—windows into a sick world where basic human needs are bought and sold out of necessity. Collectively driven, grim but never nihilistic, We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is Backwoodz’s version of an immune response: a flare-up to fight off the disease.

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Armand Hammer: We Buy Diabetic Test Strips