Album Review: Armand Hammer - Paraffin

Recently, I was told that I was old and bitter, and knew nothing about hip-hop.

The person who told me this didn’t actually tell me this; they said it in a comment within a closed Facebook group about Eminem.

A little over a week ago, I wrote a review of the new Eminem album, Kamikaze, for Bearded Gentlemen Music. My editor at B.G.M., Jon, bless his heart, thought it would be funny to get ‘hate clicks’ on the piece—he’s concerned with SEO and with traffic to the site, while I’m just happy if more than five people read the dumb garbage I post on Anhedonic Headphones.

In an effort to generate said ‘hate clicks,’ he asked to join a number of closed Eminem fan groups and shared a link to the review. This went about as well as you can expect—Eminem’s fans—‘Stans’ as they prefer to be called—became very, very defensive.

Within one of the groups, a woman left a very lengthy comment, and the conceit of it was that I was old and bitter, and that because I didn’t like Eminem’s festering turd of a new record, I knew nothing about hip-hop.

Maybe a white man who is staring down the age of 40 is the last person who should be writing about hip-hop, or rap music, the difference between the two, and where the two intersect; but please, indulge me a little further.

The difference between the two is a polarizing and contentious issue, I guess, according to the brief bit of research I did prior to sitting down to write. But the common belief is that ‘hip-hop’ is more of a lifestyle, or a culture—and that ‘rap’ is a part of that culture, though the two are mistakenly used interchangeably.

Where I’m going with all of this is that Eminem is a lot of things—but ‘hip-hop’ is not one of them. Eminem makes pop music that just happens to fall within the genre of rap.

But this isn’t really about Eminem.

This is about Paraffin, the frighteningly brilliant, dark, and visceral new album from the duo known as Armand Hammer.
Armand Hammer isn’t so much a super group, but it is what happens with Billy Woods and Elucid (born Chaz Hall)—both are rappers and producers in their own right, with lengthy canons and cult followings—come together; Paraffin is the third release the two have put out under the Armand Hammer moniker, released via Woods’ own imprint, Backwoodz Studioz.

From the startling moment that Paraffin begins, it’s clear that Woods and Hall are not to be trifled with and that this record—while dense, complicated, and incredibly claustrophobic at times—is a gigantic artistic statement for the two of them.

In short, Paraffin is ‘real hip-hop.’

Spread across 15 tracks—many of which are, like, only a minute in length, and one of which is over six—arriving at roughly 45 minutes, Woods and Hall are unrelenting throughout Paraffin. At no point is there really any kind of reprieve from the cacophonic, disorienting atmosphere they work to create—they don’t even ease you into the album, as Paraffin’s opening track, “Sweet Micky,” starts without warning, pulling you in with a dizzying, gritty, and infectious drum sample; and this is all before Hall, who is the only one of the duo featured on this track, begins frenetically delivering his lyrics.

There are a number of things that make Paraffin such a compelling listen—musically, and lyrically, it demands your attention; like, there’s really no way you can not listen to this thing if it’s playing. It hits hard, and you can’t pull yourself away from it. There’s also an underlying sense of unease that Woods and Hall have worked in throughout, thanks in part to the way the beats and lyrics worth together to build a unique world you lose yourself in as a listener—alongside that, there’s a very real, almost tangible, sense of urgency to this album. It doesn’t reek of desperation, and it isn’t needy, but there’s an immediacy from the moment it begins until the moment it ends.

It’s an importance; like, this music is important. These words are important. You’re going to want to hear this right now.

Paraffin, from beginning to end, is a dizzying and kaleidoscopic experience—however, rather than being brought to you in bright colors, Woods and Hall create a long shadow; this is in stark black and white. I mean, you should have figured that out by the album’s jaw dropping cover art, photographed by Alexander Richter. Depicting a very tired looking woman, holding a baby, standing in front of a piece of sloppy graffiti that simply reads ‘God,’ this really sets up what kind of very real environment lies within these tracks.

 From a musical perspective, you’d be hard pressed to find other artists working within the genre of rap, or hip-hop, or whatever we want to call it right now, willing to craft beats this menacing, and that hit this hard. Exiting “Sweet Micky,” Woods and Hall weave blasts of feedback and a disembodied sample of Ornette Coleman’s saxophone for the stuttering, ominous, and aptly titled, “Rehearse With Ornette.”

They never relent from there—finding innovative ways to blend otherworldly elements and atmospherics of trip-hop from the early to mid 1990s, jazz music, and the aesthetic of rap music production from its heyday in, say, 1993 and 1994; and as Paraffin continues, Woods and Hall only find additional (and exponentially more impressive) ways to build a louder cacophony with the swirling dissonance of “Black Garlic,” and the sonic whooshing of “XV.”

Lyrically and structurally, Paraffin is refreshing and damn near fearless; this is not luxury rap, or trap music, or the work of an artist out to prove something to an audience that outgrew him. In today’s modern landscape, where a majority of artists choose to strain and mumble their words through heavy auto-tune, this is, as stated before, real hip-hop, and Hall and Woods take you to a very real and dark place—the space that forms in between a dream and a nightmare.

There are times when a track will assume a near stream of consciousness—“Micky Free” is a great example of that, and the swooning and swirling “Dettol” also wanders into that territory; the blistering “No Days Off” very quickly establishes itself in the form of a more traditional track with Hall and Woods trading off verses with a clear refrain—even when it spirals into an entirely different song before the conclusion; there’s the blunted out and introspective “Fuhrman Tapes,” which arrives with the intensity of a spoken word performance.

Then there are the places where all of this converges—a captivating and strange juxtaposition of something harsh, something thought provoking, and something strangely gorgeous that you can’t pull yourself away from. Paraffin is the kind of album that David Lynch would produce if he were into hip-hop—if that makes any sense at all.

One of the most fascinating elements of Paraffin is how, lyrically, it doesn’t rely on gimmicks or heavy handed punch lines, but it also doesn’t lack a sense of humor, as Woods and Hall choose to conservatively pepper these tracks with a very subtle, very dry wit—“All jokes aside, my man had a Nigerian accountant,” Woods boasts, almost gleefully on “Alternate Side Parking”—and before that, on “Rehearse With Ornette,” he concludes the frantic first verse with the line, “Even his message drafts got the malware attachment.”

And it’s not just Woods who allows himself all the clever or attention grabbing lyrical inserts—Hall opens up the album’s final track, “Root Farm,” and in his well punctuated delivery, throws out the line, “Smack the taste out yo’ mouth—steamed milk, coffee, and cheddar scone.”

It’s moments like this, mixed with fragmented imagery of a bleak sense of despair, a visceral frustration, and an unwavering dedication to hip-hop as a culture and movement, that make Paraffin such an important and absorbing record.

Rap music, as a genre, or form of expression, is maligned because it can lack substance, or intelligence—and wind up drowning in its own bombast and excess. It’s been a rollercoaster of a year for rap music, and 2018 isn’t even over yet—marquee names continue to issue bloated albums to inflate their streaming service figures, or haphazardly record and release directionless, half-finished albums as part of a stunt structured around deadlines that are impossible to meet.

Because of all of this, it’s easy to forget that hip-hop, or rap, or whatever we’re calling it, is a legitimate, really moving art form—albums that embody this are rare. I mean, Things Fall Apart by The Roots is the first one that comes to mind, and that album is almost 20 years old now. Paraffin is one of those albums—it’s complicated and dense, and so, so dark, but it never leaves its listeners behind, or prevents them from embracing the record completely. From beginning to end, this is, without a doubt, an absolute masterpiece.

Paraffin is out now on vinyl or as a digital download, via Backwoodz; a cassette edition is also available in limited quantities from Purple Tape Pedigree


  1. Great review the only thing I thought worth mentioning was the ornette sample was actually just a random saxophone player on the street elucid sampled according to the dj booth interview they did. Thought you may wanna know.

    1. hey thanks for the heads up on that. i didn't have that info when i was putting together the review.


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