As Dark as It Can Be

By Paul ThompsonOctober 16, 2023

As Dark as It Can Be
ARMAND HAMMER with OPEN MIKE EAGLE, The Echo, Los Angeles, October 12, 2023.

On his most recent solo album—this spring’s Maps, produced entirely by Kenny Segal, the veteran of Leimert Park’s Project Blowed collective—billy woods cedes plenty of prime real estate. The slinking closer, “As the Crow Flies,” is given over almost entirely to Elucid, a fellow New York rapper and woods’s partner in the duo Armand Hammer. The headliner appears only at the end, for a brief eight-bar verse about pushing his toddler on a swing set. “Anything at all could happen to him,” he thinks as he traces his son’s arc through the air. “I watch him grow, wondering how long I got to live.”

In the morning, I walk my daughter to daycare past a smattering of fluorescent-yellow stickers promoting Armand Hammer’s just-released album, We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, which sounds like a computer learning to breathe. We walk home under a billboard that advertises the same. This is a little uncanny: a decade ago, each rapper was a supremely talented but basically obscure member of New York’s crowded underground. And while their work, together and separately, has grown richer and deeper over that decade, it’s made virtually no concessions to pop trends; woods will still not even show his face in press photos. 

Last Thursday night after the Armand Hammer show at the Echo, my friend and I were reminiscing about the maybe-apocryphal stories of Baby and Slim, the Cash Money Records co-founders, making their artists rap as they jogged around the parking lot outside their New Orleans recording studio to improve their breath control. This is how precise Elucid is on stage: his verses, which on record unfurl in every possible direction, rattling through staccato, technically difficult passages moments before he breaks into song, are rendered faithfully. 

On songs like Test Strips’s “Woke Up and Asked Siri How I’m Gonna Die,” he stalked around the stage, filling JPEGMAFIA’s beat—think a thousand haunted spas experienced at once—with vowels stretched to cartoon proportions while woods punctured the fog with quips like “Quit therapy, / she’s fixed.” Some shroud was important to maintain, though: at the beginning of their set, woods politely asked the house technicians to turn the house lights way down, to make it “just as dark as it can be.”

The pair was supported by Open Mike Eagle, himself a legend of post-Blowed L.A. rap. (I interviewed Eagle earlier this year for the LARB Quarterly, no. 36: Are you content?) His most recent record, August’s another triumph of ghetto engineering, features a track called “we should have made otherground a thing.” On paper, the lyrics are essentially a list of peers and collaborators from across his career. But over the production duo Child Actor’s slightly somber beat, the song becomes desperate: a plea to remember what is all too fleeting. 

It galvanized the Echo crowd, which roared at the recognition of names in some of Eagle’s lines and at the sheer emotion imbued in others. The subtext—that people die, that you can’t go home again—was made explicit later in the night, when woods rapped about holding a child’s “little hands when we cross the street / I think about my brothers that's long gone and this was all they ever dreamed.” The point is not to stop and mourn—the point is that “anything at all” could happen.


Photo by the contributor.

LARB Short Take live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

LARB Contributor

Paul Thompson is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, New York, Pitchfork, and The Washington Post, among other publications.


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