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Homeboy Sandman, ‘Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent’ (Stones Throw)

Homeboy Sandman / Photo by Gavin Thomas
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: May 14, 2013
Label: Stones Throw

Last month, Hot 97 morning-show host, notoriously aggressive “real hip-hop” defender, and professional Nicki Minaj antagonizer Peter Rosenberg released the pointedly titled free mixtape New York Renaissance. Verily, the tape declared the riotous return of New York City hip-hop, mostly focusing on Internet-built buzzing talents like blog-rap cipher A$AP Rocky, tough-guy foodie Action Bronson, teenaged traditionalist Joey Bada$$, Tumblr-hop meme-grabbers Flatbush Zombies, coke-rap contender Troy Ave, and so forth.

The tape’s standout, though, was the expressionistic, sore-thumb sincerity of Homeboy Sandman’s “The Plot Thickens.” Repurposed from the rapper’s 2012 album First of a Living Breed, it boasts a bumpy, vinyl-hiss beat wed to relaxed, virtuosic lines about the evils of stop-and-frisk, the multicultural wonders of his Queens hometown, and the reasons why he’s a better rapper than everybody else. It had no business on such an in-the-pocket and obnoxiously right-now mixtape — Sandman is far removed from the pan-regional trends and post-swag lyrical expectations of this forced “movement.” His affable attitude doesn’t match the aggression-cribbed-from-the-South snarl of A$AP or the low-stakes, weeded, and totally whatever rhymes of the Curren$y-cosigned pot-rapper Smoke DZA.

Instead, since signing to West Coast hub Stones Throw in 2011, Homeboy has released a steady stream of music that flaunts his own knotty, sui generis personality. January 2012 brought Subject: Matter, a frosty six-song EP that celebrated mindfulness; Chimera, a spaced-out, spiritual, damn near cloud-rap EP about death and rebirth, followed in April. Finally, there was September’s First of a Living Breed, which recycled a few key tracks from its two predecessors and took advantage of its full-length format to sprawl out, adding, say, an obnoxious sing-song homage to hip-hop’s origins (“Cedar and Sedgwick”) and a nervy Golden Era nod (“Watchu Want From Me”).

But Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent might be the strangest, most difficult, and most rewarding release from Sandman yet. So many of the frustrating tics and indulgences of the knowing, third-generation “conscious” set are absent here, replaced with roundabout raps for the youth and lo-fi, psychedelic production. This guy is a knowledge-dropper with a penchant for lecture-like platitudes, but he knows how to inject his lessons with an open-hearted charm that doesn’t feel oppressive. Opening track “My Brothers” is an oblique critique of street violence minus the usual knows-it-all smarm: “Enough carcasses, stop emptying cartridges / Aren’t you sick and tired of this? / All society’s sirens / I is! / An eye for an eye is tired.”

Next, on “Oh, the Horror,” he laughs off your assumptions about both him and rappers in general, delivering a critique of the media’s demonizing of hip-hop culture and a typical “I’m different” declaration at the same time: “I wish you wouldn’t assume / I was a goon because of my rap tunes / Or that I pack tools / Or that I act fool / Or that I left school / Or that my section’s a cesspool / Or that I hate homosexuals.” For high-concept conceits taken to their nutty, logical ends, consider Homeboy Sandman the honors-student version of Ghostface. Or, if you dig on the posi vibes of Lil B, then consider that an adorable aside like “Big up to marsupials, carrying fam” might make even the Based God jealous. It’s a silly, tossed-off line, but it speaks to the rewards of Homeboy’s music: namely, a conversational approach that makes these clumps of thorny lyrics, often filled with wide-eyed wonder, go down much easier. He injects pen-and-pad lyricism with exploratory joy.

Though Kool Herc is just eight songs and 27 minutes long, it’s plenty challenging and weighty. Screams of garage-rock noise and Latin-tinged jazz-pop waft from producer EL RTNC’s beats, creating a sun-baked acid-rock vibe. Even more mysterious is how any of this serves as a tribute to hip-hop originator Kool Herc. There are no painfully obvious references to history and tradition: Homeboy instead honors NYC’s hip-hop’s legacy by respecting and exacerbating his own originality above all else, paying tribute to rap’s expressive, do-whatever origins by…doing whatever. New York’s alleged next big things should take notes.