Arts and Entertainment

Month in Review: Underground Hip Hop Edition

Three hip-hop giants released masterful albums this month, each to great success.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Armand Hammer—We Buy Diabetic Test Strips

Armand Hammer, the rap duo consisting of billy woods (stylized in lowercase) and ELUCID, has been a mainstay of New York’s underground hip-hop scene and a pioneer of the art rap movement. Armand Hammer creates music that surpasses the confines of hip-hop by using their signature off-kilter flows, socially pointed lyricism, and experimental production. Their latest album, We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, is another collection of pure and poignant artistry from the duo. Named after the predatory capitalist signs posted across New York, We Buy Diabetic Test Strips feels as timeless as it does contemporary, as tangible as it does intangible, and as abstract and poetic as a winding stream of consciousness. 

We Buy Diabetic Test Strips may have some of the best production of the duo’s discography, with complex, multi-faceted beats made by some of the best producers in the game. Take JPEGMAFIA’s layered beds of vocal samples and dissonantly beautiful melodies on “Woke Up and Asked Siri How I’m Gonna Die,” for instance, or the pounding bass hits, siren-like guitar shrieks, and simple trap beat of DJ Haram’s “Trauma Mic.” The best production on the album, however, is on “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” produced by the legendary El-P (half of the rap duo Run The Jewels), with its rumbling drums, panning vocal samples, and sustained bass hits that work to create a methodical urgency: the background music of getting chased through an industrial hellscape. 

To match the evocative production is the even more evocative lyricism, delivered with the warbling unrest of warnings from the future. Indeed, much of the album sees woods and ELUCID in a state of internal anxiety, uncertainty, and poignant observation: “Life’s a blip, I flew in under the radar.” This tense energy is often delivered through fleeting images with dual meanings, like the biblical lyricism of “I Keep a Mirror In My Pocket.” Sometimes it is delivered in repeated hooks that read like cries for help (“I been falling in, I been paying out, I been needing now,” repeats Woods on “Landlines”); other times it’s in the simple, ambiguous lines (a voicemail recording simply states: “Life is basically tomorrow’s breakfast”). 

Ultimately, We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is another masterpiece from Armand Hammer—an album that contains layers of meaning in every verse and shines its headlights on a world tortured by injustice, anxiety, and uncertainty. Dystopian, dense, and unnerving, We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is the sound of our times.

Earl Sweatshirt & The Alchemist—VOIR DIRE

Earl Sweatshirt and the Alchemist need no introduction. Sweatshirt, with his signature hazy delivery and complex lyricism; Alchemist, with his many years of soul-embellished production and beat mastery—both are absolute, learned masters of their craft. VOIR DIRE is incredibly concise and exists on two simple tenets: incredible beats and incredible rapping. Earl and Alchemist waste no time over the course of VOIR DIRE’s brief 27-minute run time; both musicians bring out the best in one another, performing at the top of their game with an impressive ease and concision. 

Sweatshirt has honed in on his sleepy sound over the last couple of years, aging out of the constrained punchiness of his youth and the cloud of addictions and mental health problems present on his 2018 magnum opus, Some Rap Songs, and into a laid back wisdom that comes with being one of the most celebrated lyricists of the last 10 years. Sweatshirt has retained his signature spooling delivery that seems to almost have a mind of its own, simultaneously riding the wave of Alchemist’s soulful and jazzy beats and forging a unique path. Sweatshirt reflects inwards on “Mancala” over a piano parlor beat that feels both celebratory and melancholy; his thick words dance across the twinkling melodies of “Mac Deuce”; he spits a tripping flow across the clean guitar lines of “27 Braids”; and reunites with collaborator and contemporary Vince Staples on “The Caliphate,” where both use their iconic flat, slow deliveries across Alchemist’s dreamy string loops. Each track sounds like it is playing through a thick haze of smoke, an induced and meditative half-stasis that never quite finds a distinct resolution.

VOIR DIRE is a great example of the best kind of producer-rapper mixtape; composed of simple yet masterful songs, each track off VOIR DIRE feels like a perfectly decorated room, with a palatable runtime that makes it easy to listen to again and again.

Westside Gunn—And Then You Pray For Me

Westside Gunn does not want to be viewed as a gangsta rapper, but a master curator of fine arts and luxury fashion. Hence the Virgil Abloh-designed cover art for his latest (and possibly la​​st) album, And Then You Pray For Me, which features Caravaggio’s The Atonement of Christ adorned with thick, blinged-out chains, projecting a biblical importance onto gangsta rap. After over a dozen albums and mixtapes, including the 10-part Hitler Wears Hermes series (2012-2022), And Then You Pray For Me is intended to be a triumphant au revoir, a one hour and 15 minutes declaration of Gunn’s success in pioneering Griselda Records and influencing the rebirth of gangsta rap.

Say what you will about Westside Gunn; he is certainly a master curator. Listening to And Then You Pray For Me is a little like walking through the Louvre—every beatswitch, feature, gangster movie audio grab, and “ayo” adlib is placed with an artistic level of intention and precision. Gunn’s production has never been better: somehow, the beds of boom-bap drum loops, ghostly pads, and detuned piano loops feel even grimier than those on records of Griselda past. Notable examples include “Suicide in Selfridges,” with its sharp and eerie synths that punctuate the sparse detuned instrumentation, and “KITCHEN LIGHTS,” with its grandiose strings and lush piano chords. There is also a notable influx of trap beats on the album, which succeed on a case-by-case basis. Gunn navigates these beats with the swagger of an athletic champion, spitting bars about dealing drugs, getting locked up, and being a “Flygod” with the kind of ill terminology one would expect from a rapper who has spent his whole career rapping about nothing else. There is also the slew of notable features spread across the album: J.I.D’s 32-bar feature on “Mamas PrimeTime” is full of humorous lyricism and papery flows, Rick Ross’ verse on “DunnHill” is a fitting tonal match, and frequent collaborators and Griselda members Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine embellish the record with earned mastery.

The only faults of this record lie in its length: with 21 tracks, some are bound to be weaker than others. “Chloe” suffers from a slow-moving tempo and unpleasant vocal inflections from Gunn and Ty Dolla $ign, “MR EVERYTHING” features unmemorable and bass heavy production, and the many interludes that linger towards the end of each track become unnecessary and overly-flauntish on a record that is already 90 percent flexing. Overall, however, And Then You Pray For Me is a record packed with all the elements that make Westside Gunn great, solidifying his legacy as one of the best to touch the mic with every “skrrrrt” and “boom boom boom boom BOOM!”