Queens' militant pedagogue teams up with one of London's weirder producers.
Although characteristically chunky with rhyme like a Mondrian painting and interstitial melodies audibly informed by his background in saxophone, it feels disingenuous to call White Sands a Homeboy Sandman release, an ambivalence to which the title gestures. He emcees over Paul White’s beats in a reciprocal and intimate EP of lurking, trilling beauty and sociological attention so aesthetically attuned that the boundaries between pedagogy, observation, and moralization Sand toed for six EPs and four LPs disappears. Instead, we get a worldview elaborated in real time between White's beats and Sand's bars. The low end White provides with lumpy bass and intermittently discernible drones actualizes Boy Sand's clear-eyed political paranoia, while the high-keyed, warbling samples reassure his embattled spiritual optimism like a Greek chorus.
The album's centerpiece, "Wade in the Water", bends around White's Charybdic bassline while Sandman essays an understanding of himself. Lyrical precision, here as elsewhere, allows him to develop within an unspeakably involving groove: "You know who sucks too? / Every single rapper that I used to look up to / When I was drinking formula I loved you / Son, you had a formula that you shoulda stuck to." This is a bold assertion in a musical landscape with a fetish for originality and invention, often at the expense of structure or legibility. But Boy Sand is more careful than that: he isn't praising the formulaic, but claiming that craft, so often set against "art" or "creativity", is actually a prerequisite for any artistic production to do work in the world. This is, after all, an emcee who still writes bars.
So in the opener "Fat Belly", a hunger-inducing paean to veganism that almost convinces one to cut the Chobani; the heartbreaking, reportorial study of a woman in the throes of drug addiction, "Echoes"; and the two gorgeous closers, "The Butcher" and "Bad Meaning Good", Sandman develops a few ways of working toward a world in which hip-hop is not "socially conscious" but instead activism unto itself. And thanks to Paul White, the low end has a theory. This duo might not be Marxist, but they know that their rhythmic, rhyming workouts are praxis, the finest since KRS-One used the tools of hip-hop to uncloak power's historically-infused operations in the overpolicing of communities of color. Twenty years after "overseer" became "officer", Sandman follows the concept to a design for a life lived through hip hop: "I like writing; I like when people fair to me / I hate fighting; I hate when people scared of me / When I said 'I hate fighting,' I ain’t mean evil -- that I love / I don’t mean systems, I just mean people."
That title, White Sands, then, is not idle wordplay. It references the site where the first atomic bomb exploded, currently a national park closed weekly in order to test missiles. The militarization of daily life is no mystery to Homeboy Sandman, cf. "Last Rites": "Galaxies and globes / Universal soldier / Head and shoulders / Knees and toes." Sandman's great mission as an emcee is to distinguish between the militant and the militarized, the difference between a strident, vocal political resistance and the violence enacted by late-capitalist indescribabilities (just try to get a real handle on the prison, medical, and industrial complexes). Sometimes he can't because he is a universal soldier as much as anyone else. We are all trained to think about conflict martially. But before chiding him for taking up militaristic metaphors, listen to White's description of the world: churning rhythms and tremulous hooks, melancholy even if beautiful, and as gelatinous as truth in our contemporary culture's suspicion of unambiguity. It's a convincing noise. In order to navigate such waters, it's sympathetic to grant Sandman strategically crystalline narratives and a stronger embrace of warrior rhetoric than his peaceful dissent requires. He named the EP to clarify that his music, or even his entire life as an emcee, is the ground on which weapons fall. It's also a space protected and reserved for pleasure. And he wants to expand the boundaries of protection.
This is his sixth release in two years, five of which are EPs, and it's the third of those with a single producer. None have been mercenary, even though a few songs have shown up on two releases. That is to say, signing to Stones Throw in 2011 was not good for Sandman's art -- it has had no measurable benefit or detriment, because he was always virtuosic, always revolutionary, and always indefatigable. Instead, the label has given him the distribution network he deserves, and a historical place alongside DOOM and J Dilla he deserves even more. And they gave him access to Paul White, who deserves Homeboy Sandman. And, because nothing you could do will take away the human right to pleasure, you deserve to hear music this resplendent.