In a scene from his recent FOUNDation mini-doc, Queens MC Homeboy Sandman is deliberate, but somewhat unfocused. His rich New York accent fluctuates as he ponders his career trek thus far, walking to the Woodhaven Blvd. subway station, telling the cameraman about the ill effects of his old teaching gig at a local high school.
“These kids be buggin’, I come home and take a tree, you know what I’m sayin’? And uuum… how you doin’ man, can I have a $4.50 card, please?”
For Sandman, who dropped out of Hofstra University law school to rhyme full-time, scatterbrained reflection is his hallmark. It fortifies his peculiar rhyme cadence and makes him one of hip-hop’s very best MCs. He doesn’t rap as much as he ponders on wax, his vibrant baritone sometimes taking a back seat to his equally unconventional selection of music. He’s never shy about showing his personality, no matter how disjointed the results. Take “I Do Whatever I Want,” for instance, a methodical standout from this year’s Chimera EP:
“I am so inappropriate/ I had a palm reader take a look at my palm print/ She told me ‘Papa, don’t be so pompous.’”
“I said ‘Biiiiitch … careful when you talk to the Godsend/ Then she tried to pull on my drawstring, but you ain’t heard that from me, I ain’t one to gossip.”
It looks wordy on paper. When spoken, it produces the EP’s greatest LOL moment. Born Angel Del Villar II, Sandman is the perfect blend of intricate technique and urban nonchalance; he merges those traits with a provocative flair that’s undeniably New York — from its rats and graffiti to its iconic rap history. Sandman knows he’s dope, whether he’s rapping about zombie porn, his admiration for Roots MC Black Thought, or New York City itself. And while other rappers are self-celebratory, Sandman lets his rhymes speak for him. He ponders his immediate surroundings without patting himself on the back too much. Nowadays, hip-hop thrives on glossy extravagance, yet Sandman shuns it with a sarcastic humor that’s both refreshing and disarming. That approach helps Sandman stand out; his fluid rhyme patterns and menacing compositions are unlike anything else going. On his new album, First of a Living Breed, there’s the Ric Flair-esque “Woooooooooooo!” at the end of “Rain” and the terribly off-pitch hook on the title track. On “Not Really,” a simple mixture of faint strings and light drum taps, Sandman is candid: “Clear Channel FM … can kiss my ass cheek.” Here, the MC isn’t so dizzy; he simplifies his cadence as he contemplates his career trek.
Elsewhere on the album, Sandman’s old school allegiances are prevalent. There’s “Cedar and Sedgwick,” a scant Bayou blues ode to the hallowed Bronx intersection that birthed hip hop. On “Eclipsed,” his prolonged use of the word “son” gives the song an urgent feel against escalating keys and volcanic drums. Sandman isn’t the only New Yorker on this throwback shit. Fellow Queens MC Action Bronson, with his fluid delivery and aggressive spirit, evokes feelings of the 1990s and the Wu-Tang Clan — Ghostface Killah, specifically. Rappers like Harlem’s A$AP Rocky and Brooklyn’s Theophilus London represent the here and now; Rocky’s blend of methodical trap rap and London’s pop/rap hybrid connect with younger listeners, making them prime candidates for Top 40 radio. Sandman associates with underground alternative MCs like J-Live, Oddisee and Brother Ali: they create insightful songs that don’t fit into mainstream radio formats.
Sandman’s ethos goes back to the ‘80s — track jackets, boombox stereos and shell-toed Adidas, when Run-DMC reigned supreme and critics questioned hip-hop’s longevity. Yet Sandman evokes that nostalgia while remaining rooted in the present, his engaging persona as important as the music itself. Sandman pulls you in and wreaks havoc on your rewind button. Once Living Breed concludes, you wonder where he got the inspiration to pen those pause-worthy one-liners. I mean, zombie porn, really?
First of a Living Breed is out now on Stones Throw.