There’s a draft of a review intro in my files that I know is past its due date. It’s basically me asking the readership if they remember albums such as The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Live,” Mobb Deep’s “Heaven on Earth,” The LOX’ “Love, Peace & Respect,” Ice Cube’s “Birth Certificate,” Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “Live and Let Live,” Comptons Most Wanted’s “Music to Live By,” Capone-N-Noreaga’s “The Peace Report,” or 2Pac’s “Me and the World.” The wordplay takes a decidedly corny turn when I come up with titles like “It’s Illuminated and Heaven Is Cool” (DMX), “Do Good or Smile Tryin'” (50 Cent), “Here’s to My Mother” (Kurupt), “Healer Season” (Cam’ron), or “The Meadow’s Tryin’ to Heal Me” (Master P).
Obviously these albums do not exist. The point I intended to make with these bogus titles was that rap is typically a hostile environment. But in time I realized that not only are “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot” or “Music to Driveby” old references the contemporary rap audience might not be too familiar with, contemporary rap itself has cleared up. I’m talking big picture here. Even during its most quarrelsome phase rap had a warm and welcoming side, and vice versa there are plenty of artists out today who enjoy disturbing the peace. Personally I never bought into the ‘rap is always so negative’ stereotype, since a lot of that perceived negativity to me was actually constructive criticism, informative and inspirational, ultimately born out of an affirmative attitude. In the sense that – regardless of how exactly you go about it – bringing up things that are wrong is actually the right thing to do.
Be that as it may, I’m the first to admit that the general tone of rap music these days is less malicious than it used to be. When I heard that Homeboy Sandman was releasing an album called “First of a Living Breed” it felt like he was proving my point. The title “Last of a Dying Breed” was fitting for Scarface in 2000, but it would be completely clichÃ© for virtually anybody in 2012.
Despite Homeboy Sandman partaking in the indie circuit for some time now, “First of a Living Breed” is actually my introduction to him. He gives off an independent vibe alright, firmly establishing his own world view, but he also possesses the realistic trait typical of indie rappers, in effect on the refreshing “Not Really,” where he puts his newfound popularity into perspective:
“It occurred to me one show
I’m on stage where I used to be in the front row
That’s like a ten foot distance
It’s not a real big difference”
“Not Really” is one of several songs where Sand raps in an intentionally simple manner. He trades in the accompanying laconic tone for a lovestruck note that owes to A Tribe Called Quest and Slum Village on “Couple Bars (Honey, Sugar, Darling, Sweetie, Baby, Boo),” while “For the Kids” takes its title literally as he and guest Chace Infinite pen a song for the age group that is normally too young to listen to rap. Addressing a different age bracket, on “Eclipsed” the Good Sun schools competition on the ways of the business: “Get control, you son / They don’t owe you, they own you, son / They control you, son / Maybe bones they gon’ throw you some / But you get bold and they gon’ bone you, son.”
The simplified approach works for the most part, but it derails towards the end with the title track, where a sappy Oh No production and grating singing join the simplistic rhyming, and with the unnerving arcade game-inspired “Let’s Get ‘Em.” Luckily “First of a Living Breed” features also more ambitious lyricism and beat selections.
Opener “Rain” is a less blatant adaptation of video game sounds, producer Jonwayne covering everything with a dusty mantle to give it that vintage hip-hop aura. The rapper also sports a grittier vocal tone, in tune with the more serious subject matter. “Rain” being the first track, Homeboy Sandman discloses his lyrical prowess from the jump. “Watchu’ Want From Me?” follows suit, a nod to Nine’s “Whutcha Want?” that is packed with stellar 8’s on various topics (relationships, politics and rap) kicked by Boy Sand over a rollicking beat courtesy of Oddisee:
“Who was sayin’ this nation’s indivisible?
I don’t care what they say or if they paid, cats is miserable
Chillin’ while them chillun in jails to take a visit to
They was put there by cops who can’t pass a physical
Ain’t no ‘Beg your pardon,’ bargin’ in your living room
Run up on your fam while your baby drinkin’ Enfamil
Any day around the way these things is typical
Everything we say is in vain, the days are biblical”
“Sputnik” and “Illuminati” tone the playfulness down without being less intriguing, the former sounding like a Cannibal Ox offspring, while the latter revives the conspiracy rap genre with dense stanzas about modern life delivered stoically over an ethereal J57 beat. Both tracks have a lyrical depth to them most new avantgarde rap acts have yet to achieve:
“Think they’re tappin’ your computer? Your computer is a tap
Human traffickers wanna track you, your computer is a map
Forget whoever fingerprints that got a match, they got a Mac
Every app that’s on your jack’s for gettin’ jacked
Every act on every bill and every law and every bill and every act
is game that’s run so they could run up where you at
They got paddin’ down down pat, I gotta give ’em that
Now it’s money that I never had, I’m ‘posed to give it back
They keep statistics on the gifted, young, and black
They put out statistics, people read ’em, act like they be given fact
Think they been given lean when they been given fat”
Beneath some abstract and esoteric undertones “First of a Living Breed” is permeated with common sense and a sharp political sense. The album’s Achilles’ heel is the music, specifically the individual beats who are simply not varied enough. You can say that it works in a number of cases because immediacy is the idea behind cuts like “Not Really,” “For the Kids” and “Eclipsed,” still the overall musical tone of “First of a Living Breed” is too simple. Tracks like “Mine All Mine” or “4 Corners” are based on monotone rhythms no melodic flourishes can paint over.
Still with efforts as diverse as “Couple Bars” and “The Ancient” Homeboy Sandman leaves no doubt that he’s a highly gifted MC. As someone who pays much attention to album titles and such I cannot wholly vouch for the validity of “First of a Living Breed,” but I’m happy that someone came up with it and filled it with inspired messages, creating one of 2012’s most interesting rap releases.