Hip-hop has become more and more obsessed with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Homeboy Sandman, try as he might, is certainly not the MC to reverse this trend.
As a former high school teacher, it's always been hard for Homeboy Sandman to avoid tipping his hat towards Boogie Down Productions' Edutainment. It's a difficult goal to argue with; after all, even 22 years later it's hard to point to another album that balances entertainment with teaching so expertly. Homeboy Sandman hasn't always made the task so explicitly as he does here, however, and the unfortunate result is that this former MTV Made coach may be putting on a bit of a lyrical clinic but he's not doing much for the art of rap as an entertainment platform. His love of the concept of hip-hop is apparent throughout First of a Living Breed, his first LP for Stones Throw, but much like fellow educator-turned-payed rhymer Superstar Quamallah, Sandman seems thoroughly disinterested with delivering an engaging performance to match his vision.
Not to say that the man doesn't challenge himself. The album opens with a production from challenger Jonwayne, "Rain", upon which Sandman delivers word after word, ramming syllables and thoughts against each other with focused abandon. Unfortunately, the way his missives fail to connect on that track only become more apparent the further one gets into the LP, especially on tracks like "Not Really". Also produced by Jonwayne, the track's purported to be a single and to that end plays to Sandman's self-professed status as an outsider looking to inform listeners that one can step outside the boundaries of mainstream expectations to become relevant. It's a nice enough message that would be indefinitely acceptable on a more accessible album, but how can one argue that such a lazily delivered track holds any real currency for folks that are looking to hip-hop for excitement? "Sputnik" is another track that adopts a very lethargic approach, this time wrapped up in the idea of emotionless sensationalism, but the mistake here is that the track doesn't sound too dissimilar from Homeboy Sandman's approach on the rest of the album and thus feels like an especially grating example of how uninteresting an MC he is. Sandman recently pointed to KRS-One and Mos Def in a Huffington Post article as examples of '90s rappers who gained notoriety through education, but the thing he seems to miss is that those guys were also entertainers. Their art didn't rest on education, it merely happened to exist on that plane more often than not.
The production is worth noting since this is a Stones Throw release, but the crew assembled are mostly on their B games. First of a Living Breed becomes a more interesting listen as its teeth sink in, but only so much. "Illuminati", programmed by J57, acquires the feel of a streaming Lil' B for example, but the MC unfortunately finds ways to make that aloofness feel like a preacher on the pulpit, explaining to listeners how they've missed this and that. Countless more talented MCs, even Mos Def or peers like Talib Kweli and Fresh Daily, have proven the idea untenable without a feeling of soul behind it. That idea that the listener isn't being spoken at but understood, or that ideas are open to interpretation. Maybe this lack of apparent love elsewhere is why "Couple Bars (Honey, Sugar, Darling, Sweetie, Baby, Boo)" grows to feel like the highlight of the album, its earnestness for companionship so apparent compared to the somewhat heartless way Sandman approaches the rest of the subject matter here. Like the rest of First of a Living Breed, it's delivered in a somewhat detached and humorless fashion, but whether it's J57's beat or Sandman's more humanistic wordplay the track just works in a way the rest refuse to.
If you're a hip-hop head, you'd really love to find reasons to like this release. The aforementioned "Illuminati" can bring to mind a lost King Geedorah track in the right mindset, and Homeboy Sandman definitely tries to bring a perspective that's thought-through and meaningful. The problem is that even the most "conscious" hip-hop LPs don't feel specifically aimed in that direction, and the best of those charismatically thoughtful albums still manage to engage and entertain. It's obvious that Sandman shares that goal but equally apparent that he's unable of doing so. What small achievements First of a Living Breed accomplishes are quickly counteracted by dullness, by moments where it's 90% impossible to care what he's going on about. The Stones Throw beat connection has generally only gotten a rapper so far, and Homeboy hasn't even gotten the best of the roster here. In the end, First of a Living Breed is an example of an artist failing to balance the best and worst of himself, letting both halves wander freely through a 46 minute album that goes nowhere, existing simply because the potential for a tenable LP has been exhibited in the past. That exhibition is rarely visible this time around, sadly.