Review: Homeboy Sandman Is the Last Backpacker Standing on ‘Kindness for Weakness’
Kindness for Weakness probably isn’t the best Homeboy Sandman album, though it may be. One of the many things we can hope to remind ourselves in the wake of Prince’s death is that “streaks” can be shortchanged in favor of “moments.” We get it, it’s hard to make “career” sound sexy in rock’n’roll. Relativity scans but it doesn’t always sink in; it’s hard to convince a music fan that one artist’s seventh, ninth, and 13th-best albums are as important as the top tier. Nothing wrong with being tired and wanting new blood, but we’re not going to glean the best of what’s out there if we don’t do that mental legwork — if we don’t remind ourselves that conventional metrics favor hares over tortoises. Homeboy Sandman is a tortoise, according to the industry-scaling equipment that greets Drake with social-media blackouts, though it’s completely absurd to think of a talker this fast and clever as a tortoise.
The idea of applying algorithms to music — our soul’s soundtrack — probably horrifies the rapper born Angel Del Villar II in general, as the thinking man’s thinking man is on record with middlewoke opinions on artificially sweetened drinks (“If you trying to drink some soda you should not come over”) and the since-rechristened Clear Channel (“Can kiss my ass cheek”). Shouldn’t be a surprise that he outs himself as an Instagram latecomer on his sixth full-length’s amazing centerpiece “Talking (Bleep),” where his sometime employer Huffington Post is sacrificed to the gods of rhyme in order to marry “gumption” and “dumb s**t.” But the verse implying he’s polyamorous? The occasional “she was a bitch?” Homeboy Sandman isn’t your typical op-ed-writing polemicist. He’s not what they used to call a “conscious” rapper either, not with his on-record disavowal of dental dams. Right, that title — don’t mistake his “kind” for weak.
Sandman’s akin to a more personable KRS-One who joined the Native Tongues; not only is he wrong often but he charms you because of it. You invest in his worldview because it sounds sane; on 2012’s “Not Really” he summed up niche fame in the all-time stealthbrag “I’m still Black Thought’s biggest fan / Just now I can call and tell him so.”
And he’s a phenomenal wordsmith, who raps like a dictionary in a blender — try the many squiggles of the high-speed “Real New York,” where you can make out “You should just pack it in / You are just saccharine” if you don’t blink. On “Eyes” he reiterates his desire to “keep it low-key like a baritone,” and over the jagged backbeat of posse cut “Earth, Wind, Fire, Water,” Sand kicks off an astounding sequence that rhymes “speed dial,” “meanwhile,” and “Green Mile,” eventually whipping by (what else?) “freestyle.” As a curator of images he’s pithy, when “Eyes” calls back to the moleskin erotica of 2012’s “Unforgettable” with “a pair of supple breasts on his beard stubble,” or letting his homie I Am Many sum up his beloved Queens with “triple-fat goose and boombox booming.” Weakness has more guests than a typical Sand joint; no problem when they keep the pace of Shad announcing himself as the “teacher at the school of hard knocks.”
The emo sequence of “Seam by Seam” (hooked by a distracted hum sample that Ka would kill for) and Weakness’ only overwrought misstep (“It’s Cold”) are just a small detour from Sandman’s most visceral, rhythmically challenging effort yet, though: He braids himself into the not-minimal textures of “Keep It Real,” rattles over a Latin drum breakdown on “Sly Fox,” and times comedic pauses with the grace of a Coltrane session on “Talking (Bleep).” Musically, he’s stepping up vivaciously from even the capital-E entertainment of past triumphs like 2012’s palette-expanding Subject: Matter EP and dryly optimistic First of a Living Breed, as well as 2014’s indie-movie-obsessed Hallways. Hooks abound on the square-wave Zapp burps of “Eyes” and the children’s-tape whistling of “Speak Truth,” while the two and a half minutes of satisfying wordlessness on “Gumshoe” and “Funhouse” conjure up the ghosts of instrumental hip-hop past.
And Weakness’ final quadrant manages to preach without overreaching. “Sly Fox” counts “She was nice to me before I got signed” among its many rapid-fire valentines for that special lady before its untimely end: “Oh, the beat is over…but she plays soccer too, she’s hot.” His own personal “Jesus Walks” comes in the form of “God,” who makes the corrections when our hero makes the mistakes. He gives him bedbugs too, but Sand loves him anyway. And the closing groundswell “Speak Truth” makes it sound so easy to “Speak truth even when you don’t think it’s the right move” that Bernie Sanders should adopt him as a running mate.
But the best thing about Kindness for Weakness is it signals the kind of immortal talent that makes for one of those lengthy, boringly consistent careers. It’s in no hurry to rope off any part of a 13-release canon that sounds as if Homeboy Sandman can do this forever. You could start here; you could start with Subject: Matter or last year’s mega-fun, Linkin Park-sampling Lice EP. As “Talking (Bleep),” the wisest song you’ll hear today or tomorrow, surmises: “Who’s to say what the wrong way is?” Dismiss him and you’ll sound like thiiiis.