Viewing the world through the lens of Armand Hammer’s music is like putting on the sunglasses from John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi film, They Live. Shrines, the duo’s fourth album, requires multiple listens before the free-associative verses of Elucid and billy woods begin to snap into focus; but once it does, you see stark pictures of the American Dream deferred everywhere you look—in rats’s nests, in militarized police, or in gentrification, which billy woods compares to The Wizard of Oz on “Pommelhorse” (“Ill winds/ More often snatch negroes off porches”).
“We’re liberating vagrants in the mouth of opulence/ Get the fuck from ’round me if you ask why/ Trapped with no timeouts left, Fab Five,” Elucid raps in “Slewfoot.” He’s impatient—on 2018’s Paraffin, he claimed to win “two longstanding bets on an orange fascist begrudgingly.” On Shrines, the group push harder on their anti-capitalist vision—not just in the poetic, devastating scenes they write, but also in the way their pithy lyrics serve as mottos for the disenfranchised. (“Buck theories, bootstrap dreams, all huff/ Fumes noxious, we are bored of the apocalypse”). Armand Hammer doesn’t bother sizing up other rappers in terms of artistry. Instead, they draw a line in the sand between themselves and stars who have “performative rebel rhetoric.” Woods waits until the concluding “The Eucharist” to offer his bluntest critique: “Did Jay [Z] actually listen to ‘D’Evils’? Or did he just skim through it?”
Shrines boasts a larger roster of producers and featured artists than any of the group’s past work. Many of them were already members of the duo’s tight-knit, avant-garde circle: Curly Castro, Fielded, Kenny Segal, Messiah Muzik, R.A.P. Ferreira, Quelle Chris. A woozy instrumental (“Bitter Cassava”) and verse (“Ramses II”) by Earl Sweatshirt suggest that Armand Hammer could soon extend their reach even further. In this fraught time, the camaraderie on Shrines feels intentional. In 2018, Elucid told Pitchfork that his music is about bringing like minds together, to feel like “we’re fighting against the same evil.” Shrines is a confirmation that the more people who put those sunglasses on, the better.