New York is filled with signs advertising cash in exchange for diabetic test strips. It’s part of a lucrative, informal economy, where insured patients can legally sell the diagnostics to uninsured buyers who can’t afford retail prices. The whole thing is absurd to the rappers Billy Woods and Elucid of Armand Hammer.
“It’s not an actual business,” Elucid said over plates of branzino and cavatelli in Queens. “‘I got five packs of McKesson. How much can you give me for the test strips?’ They start stumbling, and I start laughing, then I hang up the phone.”
The advertisements, and what they signal about wealth disparity in the city, became the inspiration for the duo’s sixth album, “We Buy Diabetic Test Strips,” out Friday. The LP arrives at a pivotal point for the group, which formed in 2013. Over the past few years, the prolific Woods has become one of rap’s most popular indie voices. His solo releases, including last year’s “Aethiopes,” regularly appear on best-of lists and attract high-profile fans like Thom Yorke. Elucid, a poet, producer and M.C., has been turning out sonically challenging work that can best be classified as art-rap.
Together, they’re a formidable pair. Their music harks back to the mid-1990s era of New York rap, when the topics were bleak and the beats were sullen. Woods is an adept storyteller with deadpan comedic chops who hides his face in photos; Elucid spits intricate rhymes, his tone sliding up and down the scale like a jazz instrumentalist.
The new album explores the challenges of living in the gentrified borough of Brooklyn, and how the two fit within it. As fathers in their 40s in a genre that doesn’t celebrate aging, the music also wrestles with what might come next.
“It’s the whole idea of spending all this time walking around, looking at these buildings and being like, ‘Man, what if I could afford to buy this?’” Woods said. “And thinking about my mom getting older like, ‘What am I going to do?’”
Though the rappers tackle life’s fresh challenges in their new music, Armand Hammer has long focused on power dynamics, starting with “Race Music” in 2013. Interest in the duo ballooned around 2018 when its LP “Paraffin” received positive reviews in bigger outlets. Three years later, they released “Haram” — with the noted producer the Alchemist — to widespread acclaim for its menacing beats and intricate appraisal of all things taboo.
Woods grew up between Zimbabwe and Hyattsville, Md., and started rapping in 1998 with the lyricist Vordul Mega. In 2002, he started his own label, Backwoodz Studioz, which he still owns and operates. Elucid grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and moved to Deer Park, Long Island, when he was 12. His parents were active in church — his mother sang; his father played bass — and he started rapping as a junior in high school.
The two were introduced by the underground rapper Uncommon Nasa in 2011, and after Elucid recorded two features for Woods’s 2012 album “History Will Absolve Me,” they formed Armand Hammer out of mutual admiration for each other’s ability. Both tend to rap about the things they’ve seen: Woods from a perspective that references landmarks and cultural icons; Elucid more abstractly, taking personal memories into account.
The group’s ascendance can’t be pinned to one breakthrough; it’s the type of word-of-mouth come-up reminiscent of pre-internet days. “If you stay consistent and stay true to your vision over time, people are going to catch it,” said the producer and engineer Willie Green, who frequently collaborates with Armand Hammer. “And after so many records that we’ve done, every time it’s something new. It’s honest and true and whatever they’re feeling in the moment. There’s a beautiful honesty to that.”
Everything Armand Hammer produces is carefully calibrated to send a message, down to its name. It isn’t a nod to the oil and whisky tycoon. “I wanted two things that work together to do things neither can do alone,” Woods explained in a text message. “I wanted something that could be layered in its meaning/interpretations. Wrote it like a name cause that seemed interesting. Please note that the actor Armie Hammer was not famous yet and I had never heard of him or his great-uncle.”
You need patience when speaking with Woods and Elucid. Much like their music, which can be somewhat indecipherable at times, their answers tend to be free-form, their thoughts loose and open-ended. Reflections about their musical focus can be interrupted by a ladybug on the sidewalk or quick asides about N.B.A. history. They take a similar approach on their albums; you have to lean in to catch what’s happening.
Where previous releases like “Rome” (2017) and “Shrines” (2020) were steady and rhythmic, “Test Strips” is vast and experimental. With beats by Kenny Segal, Jpegmafia and El-P, among others, and a live band featuring the flutist Shabaka Hutchings, the producer/keyboardist Child Actor and the bassist Adi Meyerson, the sound is equally murky and orchestral.
Some songs, like “The Flexible Unreliability of Time and Memory,” float by without a percussive anchor; others, like “Trauma Mic,” have hard drums and pounding synths that border psych-rock. The second half of “Don’t Lose Your Job” becomes an ambient soundscape on which Elucid and the poet Moor Mother talk about death and legacy. “Landlines,” a wafting arrangement with ringing house phones and echoed vocal samples, lets Elucid muse about the future.
“I was thinking about my children, thinking about my life, thinking about my other situations I have going on,” he said reflectively. “What am I standing on? I’m 42 years old and just thinking about when I look in my children’s eyes and thinking what’s out there.”
Woods and Elucid hope listeners take inspiration from “Test Strips,” much like they did when listening for the first time to Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version.”
“Art is controlled by a lot of things other than this spirit that creates art,” Elucid said. “ODB brought that recklessness, that energy and that spirit.” As they were making the album, he added, “I feel like that’s just our nature at this point, trying to touch that spirit. I’m trying to show you how to be familiar with the unfamiliar.”
Sometimes that “unfamiliar” can be right in your neighborhood, like those diabetic test strip signs. “That feeling of, ‘there’s a road behind everything that’s in front of you’ — people’s hidden lies and hidden networks and economies,” Woods said. “Some people are seeing this and know exactly what it is, right? Everyone else’s eye glazes over it. The sign is just a mystery you don’t really know about. Because it’s not about you.”