‘Workmanlike:’ the term itself can be both a gift and a curse. While being described as such is seen as commendable by nearly everyone, in pop-culture it often brings the air of a backhanded compliment along with it. It’s akin to being an everyman, failing to stand out or, worst of all in our celebrity-obsessed culture and its never-ending news cycle, lacking in personality.
Yet it is a term that easily springs to mind when trying to describe Sandman’s shtick, or rather, lack thereof. Peep for instance the single ‘Not Really,’ in which he juxtaposes his life before and after his fame, finding as much overlap as differences and no reasons to let any of it faze him. Here is a guy you can easily imagine yourself running into on the streets, perhaps enjoying an interesting conversation and sharing a drink with. A guy you can easily identify with, he just raps a lot better than you. That the grandeur and gargantuan ego-stroking that has become almost synonymous to mainstream rap is absent doesn’t mean there isn’t anything of interest to be found in Homeboy Sandman’s personality, on the contrary. By simply letting his work speak for himself, it becomes much more powerful than if he were bellowing its greatness. And a powerful work it is.
There’s a wide variety of subject matter, something of great importance to Homeboy Sandman, from incensed political views to casually relaying to a girl that he dreamed about her, and he expertly switches his cadence and the ferocity or fluidity in his voice according to the subject. While said voice doesn’t have the natural authority of someone like Bun B or Scarface, his often conversational tone works wonders in contrast with his virtuoso rap. Internal rhyme schemes seem a dime a dozen with this guy and whole verses take the same end-syllable while still organically sticking to his theme. On ‘Sputnik,’ the way he tracks back to the three-letter pattern after side-stepping it sounds like the verbal equivalent to the best fake-out an NBA athlete could muster, and subsequently hits nothing but net:
“Knicks’ed down, listening to ODB
But for the mix down, this is what an OD be
I’m like the dude in commercials for Dos Equis
Or Duran Duran
Or Durant from OKC”
Dexterously spitting is one thing though, doing so with lines that smartly loop in on themselves, creating a multitude of double entendres and rewind-worthy moments, is another. Above all, Homeboy is wicked with his pen, like on ‘Illuminati’ (thanks for the Google hits on that, HS) where he casually drops gems like this:
“We used to beat on Bush, but now he’s not around so people found a different bush to beat around.”
Or on ‘The Ancient,’ where he veers dangerously close to the pitfalls of pedantry commonly associated with ‘conscious’ rap, he steers clear of the edge by sheer mastery of his craft. You’ve heard the gist of the complaint a million times, but not like this:
“Half these cats are spreading love, but they feeling hunger
Other half are feeling numb, but they’re doing numbers
But how can they not feel like herbs saying “word to mother”
Then saying a bunch of words they’d never say to mother”
There are blissfully few slip-ups on the album, but the ones that are present do stick out: ‘Cedar & Segwick’ could very well be a commentary on the cliche image of the average rap track; the few sentences it contains do nothing but mention the streets he’s representing, that he doesn’t worry about money, handles his “J.O.” and how others suck. Those lines are repeated over the instrumental but the sudden lack lyricism makes it fall flat as a song itself, ironically even more so when wedged in between Homeboy Sandman’s otherwise excellent rapping. ‘For The Kids’ is a track containing an uncharacteristic amount of predictable advice to children, possibly a remnant of his years as a schoolteacher, but like a schoolteacher in the eyes of his pupils, a song like this will never sound very cool to its intended audience. The stretched vowels on the hook to title track ‘First of a Living Breed’ aren’t exactly buttery-smooth either, if it’s intended as singing in the vein of ODB or Ghostface it would probably work better to really let loose and play the chorus less straight-faced.
Overall, these are minor glitches though. With his intelligent looping poetry coupled to some pleasantly left-of-center beats, Homeboy Sandman fits right at home on the Stones Throw roster. Proving that an everyman can rise above the fray when sufficiently talented, he reappropriates and reevaluates that double-edged delineation of ‘workmanlike.’ Hip-hop could certainly use some more craftsmen like this.