by Temi Akinyoade
Like most other Armand Hammer albums, trying to piece together the themes and song meanings of We Buy Diabetic Test Strips is like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle with no reference image. It’s a journey you embark on expecting to never reach the end because there’s clearly related pieces here and there and a few 15-piece chunks you managed to group, but you struggle to see how each of them fit into the bigger picture. This album, as confusing as it might be, is able to give the illusion of it being put together. But as always, it shows off the versatility in billy wood’s and ELUCID’s flows and their triple-layered songwriting.
The album opens with “Landlines,” where ELUCID choses a flow that’s more “onbeat” than usual. Woods’ first line on this song is “rather be codependent than codefendants,” a simple double-entendre about a struggling relationship that lets fans know they can expect the same good-quality lyrics from him as they always do.
“The Flexible Unreliability of Time and Reality” is complex and almost meta. After ELUCID’s verse, his repeating “certainty is a circle, I don’t believe you” turns into an unforgettable chant. We get a couple of cheeky layered bars from billy woods about getting money: “I read the paper even though they tell me not to / I get the paper, don’t need no how-to.” And he continues to seamlessly walk the listener through whatever he’s talking about using double-meanings. With “a house divided, pick sides for the civil war / Like pickup ball / Half-court, four on four / Speak to me like it's a court of law,” he uses the Abraham Lincoln quote to exaggerate the stress of a domestic dispute then takes us from a basketball court to a legal one. And when he jumps from court records to vinyl records to his own records – “Strike it from the record if it's not something you did or saw / My records spin like a band saw / My record speak for itself, don't try to add-on” – music journalists are put on edge.
Of course, ELUCID has plenty of standout lyrics on this project, too. In the more comical song “Niggardly (Blocked Call),” he talks briefly about the unpleasantries of getting contacted by people you don’t want to speak to. Here, he paints a clear picture of what it feels like when that person sends him a voicemail: “Blocked call, voicemail still hit ya / Like building walls / And throwing dead pigeons over / I need a bigger ladder and a blowgun for the floaters.”
Like always, the beats are diverse and showcase the ability of the duo to rap on anything from ominous looped samples to deconstructed experimental noise. Instead of sticking with one producer like they did on their most recent album Haram with The Alchemist, Armand Hammer returned to their typical practice of having nearly 10 different producers contributing to the album. JPEGMAFIA lent four different beats to this project and it’s not only obvious from the familiar “I like jpegs” tag, but also with the atmospheric sounds and glitches across each of his tracks. El-P produces “The Gods Must Be Crazy” which is high-energy and a head-bumper that’s clearly influenced by traditional hip-hop and the general noise of New York City. “I Keep A Mirror in My Back Pocket,” which pays homage to E’40’s song “Practice Lookin’ Hard,” is produced by Preservation, someone who’s worked with woods on plenty of projects. The song matches its lyrical content which is playful, driven, and riddled with suspense through the disordered xylophone notes and a very swingy loop of a jazzy drummer.
This album is also visited by plenty of the duo’s rapper friends, and each of them fit onto their tracks perfectly, changing their tones slightly to match the beats and create harmony with the other flows. Their verses may seem unrelated, but even ELUCID and woods’ own lyrics tend to combat and contrast each other on their own songs. On “Y’all Can’t Stand Right Here,” New York rapper Junglepussy gives us “why fuck him? I’m a better writer (rider).” In “I Keep A Mirror in My Pocket,” Cavalier catches the swing of the instrumental in his cadence on this verse and follows it with a catchy chorus—rare in an Armand Hammer song but done perfectly here. In it, he seemingly flips the the use of “mirror mirror” from the E-40 song back into a fairy tale reference and trails it with a quote from the wolf in “The Little Red Riding Hood” to talk about his skepticism and dislike of cops: “Eye on these pigs, empty advice is hollow tips / You ask me why I'm like, ‘the better to see you with.’”
Currently, it’s easier to appreciate these songs more on an individual-level than as an album as a whole, but that's no different from how it typically feels to sit with an Armand Hammer album for less than one week. Many Armand Hammer fans don’t listen to their music with a full understanding of everything ELUCID and woods say. Part of the fun and appeal to their music is understanding the more you listen and getting excited to fit a couple more puzzle pieces into the mysterious end product. And after some more time with the album, hopefully you can start to fit some of these parts together.