Homeboy Sandman – First Of A Living Breed
Stones Throw: 2012
It might be Homeboy Sandman’s time. With the release of First Of A Living Breed, the Queens MC counts himself an impressive eight albums deep into a rap career that is perfectly aligning itself with an industry allowing for brave experimentalism. The open source nature of the hip-hop market has placed huge value on the unconventional virtues and quirks that folks like Homeboy Sandman possess in spades. Not only is there an audience for anything and everyone, there are devastatingly efficient vehicles with which to deliver the goods. In 2012 you can build a fairly strong case that, other than in the very beginning, the ebbs and flows of hip-hop’s course are once again being charted by the actual makers of the art and not nebulous third parties with suspect curatorial practices.
Virtuous bluster aside, underground heads should simply rejoice that one of their best and most promising subjects is coming-of-age musically inside the glorious online swirl of rap niches. Stones Throw Records is a storehouse of limited-run, craft hip-hop, and Homeboy Sandman is an artisanal talent if there ever was one. First Of A Living Breed is the pilot LP (after two well-received extended players on the label) and it serves to combine the two best things about the Ivy League-educated word nerd: A refreshing new/old school sensibility that casts unfiltered light on hip-hop’s sample-based glory days; and a proclivity for super-lyricism that, while at times strangely off-putting, never ceases to engage or provoke.
To wit: In the first handful of tracks we have Homeboy Sandman exercising an array of different flows. There’s the delightfully off-kilter stutter of “Rain”; the plainly conversational and relaxed love letter of “Couple Bars”; and the robotic, stubbornly in-the-pocket paranoia of “Sputnik.” Chalk Sandman’s lyrical diversity up to an overwhelming desire to be different, not an attempt at blatant spectacle. After all, he remains mostly toned down throughout First Of A Living Breed, favoring sly observation like on the regional “4 Corners” when you might prefer him to flex more as he does on the LP’s first single, “Watchu Want From Me?” Likewise, “Mine All Mine” is a lyrical workout that reminds us the much-maligned rapping-about-rapping thing can still be exciting when handled dutifully.
But, while Sandman excels virtually everywhere in verse, some dubious decisions are made in the hooks department. Certainly the MC capable of such poignant and relevant social commentary found on “Illuminati” can also pen an engaging chorus when the time calls for it, right? Not so on “For The Kids” and “4 Corners”, two tracks with severely underwhelming hooks that still manage to stand out due to 6th Sense and Invisible Think’s head-nodding production. Even more baffling, though, is the straight-up unpleasant refrain of the title track: A couplet, sung flat and stretched to a tone-deaf end by Sandman who oddly caps it with the line, “This is heaven to me.” It most certainly is not heaven to this listener’s ears.
Then again, that might be the point: Dispense with your tired expectations when Homeboy Sandman is on the mic. Admittedly, when such quixotic lyricism is paired with carefully hewn production (the high-def video game glitch of Jonwayne’s “Rain”; the Golden Era knock of Oddisee’s “Whatchu Want From Me?”) a lot can be forgiven in the name of witnessing an uncommonly analytic MC drop knowledge. Contextually in hip-hop there has always been a place for left-of-center oddities like Homeboy Sandman. The difference today is that he practices in an arena where artists like him aren’t relegated to just hanging out in the corners. Idiosyncratic is found, at most, within two clicks of convention, a widening of the audience’s gaze that happens simply by default. On the humblebrag track “Not Really”, Homeboy goes out of his way to explain how much and how little has changed in his life since finding success in the music industry, finally concluding that it’s the “same Sand, different beach.” Indeed. There has never been a better time in hip-hop to stop pretending to be someone you’re not.